Spike Lee’s movie rendition of Antoinette Nwandu’s play Pass Over debuted on Amazon Prime in April of 2018 without much fanfare. It recently received a promotional bump by the service as part of their highlighted material related to Black Lives Matter. The film couldn’t be more timely for those seeking a theatrical experience from the safety of their couch.
Produced at the Steppenwolf Theater, the 75 minute one-act is bookended with Lee’s footage of a primarily Black audience bussed in from the south side and west side of Chicago. The work is given more humanity by including throughout the faces of those whose lives all too often mirror the Pass Over themes as they witness the performance.
The play was famously inspired by the death of Trayvon Martin. Ms. Nwandu was teaching in Tribeca at the time of Trayvon’s murder and regularly coming into contact with young men who were being stopped by NYPD just for “breathing black.” She wanted to explore whether we are capable of change as a nation, a conversation that has only gotten louder, broader, and more persistent in recent months.
The tragedy portrays the deep friendship between two young Black men who have been cut off from everyone. Like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, the classic from which Nwandu’s script takes its form, Moses and Kitch are stuck in a wilderness one-block long, starting each night by creating a top ten wish list. Their desires are comprised primarily of simple things like clean tube socks with the occasional inclusion of something like a yellow sports car making them briefly smile.
Lee takes full advantage of Danya Taymor’s strong stage direction, allowing us to see the characters’ cycles of ease and dis-ease she’s created with his wide shots punctuated by extreme close up. Music by Howard Drossin emphasizes the stirring, melancholy mood. The quality of the acting is sublime, with Jon Michael Hill — who also appeared in the Lincoln Center production in the summer of 2018 — taking control of the stage as the outwardly assured Moses. Julian Parker gives Kitch a refined and touching delicacy. Balancing mannered charm and menace is Ryan Hallahan’s Master, with Blake DeLong rounding out the cast as an obvious and overblown police officer.
Pass Over is not so much a conversation starter as a personal meditation that challenges us to dig deep and ask ourselves how we are each contributing to the patterns of racism. For anyone who missed the original, this film offers an opportunity to see a well reviewed play performed by a first rate cast and filtered through the sensibility of a filmmaker of color at the top of his craft. For those who saw the stage production, Lee’s revision displays the work through the sharpened lens of the BIPOC movement. Pass Over contains strong language and adult themes. It is available to Amazon Prime subscribers.