Pass Over (2018) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Pass Over (2018)

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Moses and Kitch, stuck on the corner, start imagining what their paradise would be if not for the realities of life keeping them where they are.  Spike Lee directs Pass Over, a theatrical production with collaborating director Danya Taymor, with the screenplay written by Antoinette Nwandu, and stars Jon Michael Hill and Julian Parker.

Every few years, Spike Lee takes time away from his own work to collaborate with the creative team of a theatrical production to bring it to the cinema.  My favorite Spike films are in this vein, from the nervy excitement of Freak to the heartbreaking creativity of Passing Strange.  They're as much a creative exorcism as they are a focused realignment, freeing Spike from multiple duties to place his faith in the theatrical talent and bring the closed-off world of the stage to the screen.  Pass Over is not as entertaining as Freak or Passing Strange, but vibrates with uncertainty and pain on a level similar to A Huey P. Newton Story.

The wordsmith behind Pass Over is Antoinette Nwandu, a name I was not familiar with prior to Pass Over and now realize I have much to learn from.  She's a passionate and powerful speaker which is reflected perfectly in the dialogue of Pass Over as the lightly reserved Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Julian Parker) wait for something - anything - to free them from the corner.  Their waiting might be familiar to anyone who has seen Waiting For Godot but the affect taps into a tension I feel sitting in restaurants, going to the theater, or buying groceries.  The tension that at any point someone who feels my life is theirs to do as they see fit can snuff out my existence on this planet.

Dread-inducing moments like Mister's tainted offer to feed Moses and Kitch benefit from Spike's unbound camera.

It's the contradiction of my existence knowing I benefit from but am terrified of the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that Pass Over personifies in the horror of Mister.  Played by Ryan Hallahan to unnerving perfection, Mister is everything I fear and studiously hope to avoid.  He's a candy poison, dangling the sustenance and just a hint of religious fervor to keep Moses and Kitch at their corner instead of venturing off into the outside world.  When the sound of bullets smashes into then echoes through the sparse stage it's Mister who stands unafraid while Moses and Kitch hug the concrete, which gives Spike and collaborating director Danya Taymor time to frame the story in cinematic flourishes.

"Flourish" may also be too strong a descriptor for Spike's direction of Pass Over, as he has never been as tight and focused as he is here.  Part of that is due to Nwandu's screenplay, with Moses and Kitch spilling every fear, hope, and anger out onto the stage with razor-sharp urgency.  That pushes Spike to establish his visual points quickly, succeeding to unnerving effect like when Moses and Kitch find themselves on their backs and trapped against the very cement of the corner they're unable to leave, or when the looming faceless presence of white power threatens to squish Moses against the corner post.  From the rapid-fire cuts of Moses and Kitch's teasing, to the longer shots of their despair, Spike finds the best visual for the emotional beat and gets right to it.

Spike had to be at his best to keep up with Nwandu's words, and that goes double for Hill and Parker's performances.  They ping-pong their feelings back and forth with relentless speed, so deeply invested in their characters that the sudden shifts from playful to solemn are as effective as they are surprising.  Both get moments that shatter any joy to linger on the trauma of their corner, the most patient of which involves Parker's Kitch going down the list of everyone he knows that's been killed.  The moment is antithetical to Spike's style, slowly rotating around Kitch as he goes through a seemingly endless list of names and sometimes vague descriptions, letting the weight of each one hang in the air before moving to the next.

If that works precisely because it plays against Spike's usual style, another goes with his the challenge directly to the audience so many of his films have.  Hill's Moses, exhausted from the list and their constant harassment by white oppressors, yells "Stop - killing - us" directly to the camera, multiple times, at different parts of the stage.  So much of Spike's filmography continues to be relevant but this part really hurt.  He's so far removed from the relative optimism of School Daze that Spike's filming a character that removes any possibility of metaphor and pleads to anyone who will listen - be it the absent god, the omnipresent weight of the white oppressors, the theatrical and cinematic audiences - to stop.

Another benefit to filming the theatrical performance for cinema is capturing bits of the performers work that would be difficult, if not impossible, to see onstage.

This moment helps answer a longstanding question I've had about why Spike spends resources to do stage-to-screen adaptations.  Part has to do with the continued relevancy of theater, able to speak more directly and passionately to current concerns than the long production cycle cinema generally needs.  The equally important piece, I think, comes with access.  An artist should be able to present their work how they wish, in the medium most appropriate, and that often means theatrical productions go unrecorded and unavailable to the general public.  By working closely with the theatrical creative teams, Spike is able to present a version of the theatrical experience in a way that keeps his cinematic instincts sharp while still remaining true to the audience in attendance.

After all, there's still no substitute for being there.  No matter how great Spike's direction of Pass Over is, he still gently reminds us that the audience in attendance is in communion with the performers more intimately than I am with this screen.  That's why I'm grateful for those final moments where Spike puts the camera on the audience and - in the words of the great Buddy Wakefield - asks them to be themselves.  They're performing "themselves" as best as possible, some shaken and others hiding from the enormity of their feeling after Pass Over, which is every bit a part of the story as Moses and Kitch's plea and hope that they'll find something better someday.

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Pass Over (2018)

Directed by Spike Lee.
Collaborating direction by Danya Taymor.
Screenplay written by Antoinette Nwandu.
Starring Jon Michael Hill and Julian Parker.

Posted by Andrew

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