Albert Maysles' legacy thrives at rejuvenated Harlem cinema


When Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro opened for a one-week Oscar-qualifying run on Dec. 9, 2016, one of the three venues that distributor Magnolia Pictures chose was a 51-seat storefront theatre in Harlem. Not your usual booking for an Academy Award hopeful, but the strategy paid off with a nomination in the Documentary Feature category.

In point of fact, the Maysles Cinema on Malcolm X Blvd. and 127th Street was an ideal location for the screenings, bringing this stirring documentary about the renowned writer and activist James Baldwin to the very neighborhood where he was born and to audiences who would find particular insight and inspiration from his words. Not to mention that the Maysles Cinema is the creation of one of the foremost names in documentaries, Albert Maysles, who died in 2015 at the age of 88.

Last Tuesday, the Maysles Cinema and Documentary Center held an industry open house to celebrate its rejuvenation. Founded in 2005, the Center initially housed a makeshift theatre equipped with a pull-down screen and folding chairs for seats, according to Albert’s daughter Rebekah. Today, after a renovation, the cinema has rows of real theatre seats, a permanent thirteen by five-foot screen, Dolby 5.1 surround sound, and an NEC 2K DLP projector equipped to show DCPs, Blu-rays and DVDs, plus 16mm capability.

The theatre is currently showing the acclaimed Australian suspense thriller Hounds of Love and will be playing host to the 24th New York African Film Festival May 19-21. But one reason behind the open house was to promote the cinema’s availability for rental for private and public screenings, press screenings, premieres, work-in-progress screenings and one-week runs. With that extra income, the nonprofit intends to support its education program, teaching documentary production to both young people and adults in the vibrant surrounding community.

The mission of creating a community documentary center is consistent with Albert Maysles’ curiosity and sensitivity as a filmmaker. He and his brother David, who died in 1987 at age 55, were pioneers of the improvisational “fly on the wall” documentary style that blossomed in the 1960s. Their body of work includes two films named to the National Film Registry: Salesman (1969), about door-to-door Bible salesmen, and Grey Gardens (1975), their famed account of the lives of Jacqueline Kennedy’s reclusive, eccentric aunt and cousin, “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale. They also accompanied and captured The Beatles on their first tour of the USA, filmed the notorious Rolling Stones Altamont concert in their controversial feature Gimme Shelter, and made documentaries about Vladimir Horowitz, conductor Seiji Ozawa and conceptual artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Albert Maysles continued to work after his brother’s death. His 2014 film Iris, about nonagenarian fashion icon Iris Apfel, earned high praise, and his final feature, In Transit (2015), filmed entirely aboard Amtrak’s long-distance Empire Builder train, opens on June 23 at the Maysles Cinema and the East Village’s Metrograph.

The first five minutes of In Transit were screened during the open house along with “How to Be Bad,” a short doc about a philosophy professor made by a Maysles Documentary Center student, high-schooler Vicky Lee. The program also included some of the Maysles’ rare commercial assignments, including a marvelous extended Clinique commercial with women discussing notions of beauty; a National Education Association spot on the value of teachers; a time-capsule promo for Atari; and a charming but rejected commercial for Air France with vérité footage of Parisian lovers. Erika Dilday, executive director of the Center, was away at a conference but sent her greetings via video. But cinema director Jessica Green and Rebekah Maysles spoke enthusiastically about the Center and its hopes at each screening.

Catered by local Harlem eateries (loved the collard greens and mac-and-cheese from Melba’s!), the event also took advantage of the downstairs reception area, which has simulcast capability for overflow crowds. The entire staff was warm and welcoming, very much in the intimate spirit Albert Maysles developed with his camera subjects. May his legacy live on.

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