Spike Lee’s Pass Over is a beautifully filmed version of a powerful play. At times it feels like a concert film. The audience is a central character, and not just in the theater. The film opens with scenes of young audience members preparing to get on busses to head to The Steppenwolf Theatre to see the play. We see as they get ready and we hear their laughter, their gasps, their concern.
Antoinette Nwandu’s play (directed for the stage by Danya Taymor) is about two young black men, Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Julian Parker), forever stuck on a Chicago block. Their existential threat is police violence. Almost everyone they know has been killed, so they stay on their block, passing the time talking about what they’ll do in the “promised land.”
The two have cooked up a sort of biblical mythos about life outside of the block. Old testament references abound (it is, after all, a play called “Pass Over” with a main character named Moses), but the concerns are immediate. Here, the promised land is a state of mind, a place where the threat of being gunned down doesn’t lurk around the corner. It’s also a place where you can order champagne on ice from room service. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Moses and Kitch aren’t the only characters on the block. There are two white men who come in and out of their lives. The first, Mister (played by Ryan Hallahan) is wealthy and aloof, decked out in full seersucker and hat, carrying a comically oversized picnic basket. He claims to be lost on the way to his mother’s house, and offers the bounty in his basket to the men. They are mistrustful, but they spend time with him, enjoying the food. He has all their favorites, after all.
The second is Ossifer (here played by Blake DeLong; on stage both parts were portrayed by Hallahan), a police officer who checks in on Moses and Kitch to keep them in their place. He is an unchecked racist, finding glee in using racial epithets and ensuring the men never leave the block.
The power of the film comes from the oscillations of racism between Mister and Ossifer. One is obvious, while the other is dangerous. Moses and Kitch come to learn that the threat of gun violence may be the least of their worries in this life. Maybe there is no promised land for two black men so long as the Misters of the world are out there, enjoying their picnic baskets.
Adding footage of the audience before the show is a disarming and brilliant conceit. It reminds the viewer that this performance is not just for them, but for a different audience, one that is mostly young, black and living through struggles similar to Moses and Kitch. There is much of the film that is extremely current (direct reference is made to Colin Kaepernick’s protests) and may not stand the test of time, but seeing the audience experience the play adds a timeless weight to the story.
The most important thing one can do when leaving Pass Over is discuss it. There is a great deal to unpack, and some conclusions may not be as obvious as one thinks. The real gift of Lee’s film is bringing this story to audiences around the world. See it when it’s available to you.