Where many filmed plays attempt to “open up” their source material, Pass Over doubles down on its theatricality. The film was shot at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, and filmmaker Spike Lee worked in close collaboration with stage director Danya Taymor, sporadically wedding theatrical restrictions with cinematic compositions. With a few notable exceptions, the film is set on the Steppenwolf’s stage, which has been abstractly dressed to resemble an austere Chicago city block. Just as we grow accustomed to watching the actors perform from a roving omniscient perspective that’s familiar to concert films, Lee cuts to a close-up that shatters this sense of distance, briefly suggesting a character’s private reality.
Audiences may wish, however, that the mediums of theater and cinema had been more playfully merged, as Pass Over can use all the variety it can muster. Based on a play by Antoinette Nwandu, the film is concerned with restriction, which Lee and Taymor embrace with a purity of intent that’s remarkable and actively stifling. Of course, the play is meant to be stifling, as it’s a reflection of the lives of the protagonists, Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Julian Parker), young African-American men who’re stuck on a street corner, starving and unemployed, dreaming of passing over into the promised land. Moses and Kitch talk of the lives they’d lead if they were allowed to leave this block, which they equate to crossing the river Jordan. On the wish list is lobster rolls, caviar, and dates with unattainable women.
Pass Over spins African-American hardship into existential myth, suggesting along the way such plays as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. What Moses and Kitch say is less important than how they say it: in bursts of staccato sing-song—heavily punctuated with the multifaceted “N-word”—that telegraphs their anger and repressed energy. These long digressions are all that Moses and Kitch have, as they’ve been pointedly leached of identities. We learn that Moses had a brother, who was killed by a cop, and that’s about it in terms of character portraiture. These men are defined by their need, their color, and by their suppression by white men.
Occasionally, a white police officer, Ossifer (Blake DeLong), will appear on the scene and harass Moses and Kitch, berating them while they lay on the street with their hands behind their heads. Ossifer is a pig whose behavior is complemented by that of another white devil, Mister (Ryan Hallahan), a Southern dandy who calls himself Master and wears an anachronistic white suit that visually links him to Colonel Sanders. Mister speaks the way that white men speak when they’re impersonated by African-Americans: like a clueless puritan, with an emphasis on phrases like “gosh” and “golly gee.”
Pass Over bludgeons us with these stereotypes, spinning in circles before reaching an inevitable tragic ending. At a certain point, one might be inclined to wonder if it’s unreasonable to expect Moses and Kitch to take a sliver of personal responsibility for their fates—a reaction that the play courts and shames. The men are shown doing nothing except weathering abuse and dreaming of the promised land. They’re condescendingly reduced to ciphers, and are meant to symbolize the myriad fashions in which our society reduces people of color to statistics. Yet Pass Over gives us no sense of what’s being suppressed. Lee often uses stereotypes in his original films as well, but they’re enlivened by humor, the vital, sensual audacity of his aesthetic, and by his willingness to interrogate his own beliefs. In Pass Over, we’re congratulated for subjecting ourselves to the film’s hectoring solemnity.
Tellingly, Pass Over’s best moments are the documentary segments that frame the filmed performance, following African-American audiences as they board a bus for the Steppenwolf, and, later, as they’re positioned by Lee for portraits. Within seconds, these people are permitted a warmth and a specificity of identity that’re denied Moses and Kitch. This project finds the filmmaker gripped by misplaced reverence: If only Lee had further stretched the play’s boundaries, allowing his free-associative sensibilities to roam.