'Pass Over': Film Review | Sundance 2018

Courtesy of Amazon Studios
More powerful than its filmed-play format might suggest.

Spike Lee adapts an Antoinette Nwandu play in which two homeless men live their own kind of 'Waiting for Godot.'

A housing-project Godot for the age of Trump, Spike Lee's adaptation of Antoinette Nwandu's Pass Over puts two homeless black men on a street corner they can only imagine ever leaving. Speaking powerfully for African-Americans who feel trapped by design in environments of poverty and violence, it recalls the in-your-face allegory of Do the Right Thing; this time, though, the battle between love and hate seems already to have ended. Destined not for theaters but for streaming, this worthy effort will miss out on something its very production conceit celebrates: the power of communal viewing by those for whom it was made.

Lee's film starts not in Nwandu's world but in our own, watching as a mostly black audience is bussed to Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater from what we assume to be the city's poorer neighborhoods. (The play is set at the intersection of 64th Street and Martin Luther King Drive, a notoriously violent block right in front of the Parkway Garden housing project.) At several moments during the play, Lee will cut to these viewers as they register a bit of dialogue or action with obvious topical relevance; where those reaction shots could have been heavy-handed, they instead quietly emphasize the individual humanity of people who live in these neglected neighborhoods.

The men onstage are Moses, a wary, athletic man played by Jon Michael Hill, and the more relaxed, goofy Kitch (Julian Parker). We meet them at the start of a day on the corner, where the usual how's-it-going banter (the answer: "you know" / "you know" / "you know") soon shifts into fantasies of some life beyond their immediate situation — a life, that is, in the Promised Land. They challenge each other to enumerate the top 10 ingredients of that paradise, which range from collard greens to a drawer of new tube socks to world peace. (Just kidding on that last one, Moses admits.)

The dialogue is dense and forward-propelled, uplifting in delivery and humor if not content, until the sound of gunfire rings out and our heroes drop to the stage, silent. The interruption, routine for them, quickly ends, and talk grows more focused on the wish to "pass over" — that's "a megafo," Moses points out — from the street to a more comfortable life somewhere.

"Are we fixin' to get up off this block?" the men wonder, soon agreeing that they've dreamed too long about the future and need to move into action: "Not fixin' to," they decide, but "we is." For the rest of the play, Nwandu and the stage production's director Danya Taymor ensure that they can't.

Instead of Beckett's Pozzo and Lucky, the two are visited by two unrelated men representing very different sides of the white ruling class. One, of course, is a cop, who never even pretends to be there for their protection, but badgers them into promising they'll never leave their place. The other, more complicated figure, is a sunbeamy gent in seersucker (he uses "gosh-golly-gee" as his go-to exclamation) who offers aid, of a sort, to Moses and Kitch.

As he lets us get to know the men and then investigates their inability to leave, Lee seems to be shooting a single uninterrupted live performance. The number and placement of camera angles he uses (which liberate this movie from the often stilted filmed-play look) makes that seem unlikely, but if he and editor Hye Mee Na have spliced together multiple performances, the illusion is perfect. Lee draws us into the characters' space, judiciously using direct-address at the very end when all this inaction turns suddenly consequential. Pass Over is no happier in the end than the play that inspired it or the real events that inform how we interpret it. But as he lovingly photographs audience members after the performance, Lee finds people of color who seemingly haven't succumbed to despair in the face of a Trumpian version of "morning in America."

Production company: 40 Acres and a Mule
Distributor: Amazon Prime
Cast: Jon Michael Hill, Julian Parker, Ryan Hallahan, Blake DeLong
Director-producer: Spike Lee
Screenwriter: Antoinette Nwandu
Director of photography: Chayse Irvin
Costume designer: Marci Rodgers
Editor: Hye Mee Na
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (SidebarOrSection)

75 minutes