Two homeless men in Spike Lee’s film who inhabit a shabby street corner fear for their lives, although there is no visible threat. They joke and banter, but terror buzzes beneath the repartee. One keeps vigil while the other sleeps. Their stalkers, it becomes clear, are the police, though their purported crimes remain undefined: “We’re just two black men standing here and we ain’t doing shit.” They puzzle over the death toll of black men around them. “What his crime is?” asks one man. “Breathing while black?”
Even though Pass Over was originally written by Antoinette Nwandu as a stage play, partly as a response to the shooting of Trayvon Martin, Lee’s 2018 adaptation might just as well be speaking about the death last week in Minneapolis of George Floyd and the conflagration of pained outrage that followed it.
Lee made a short film in protest against Floyd’s death this week, but Pass Over’s awful eloquence serves equally as a reminder of injustices at the hands of the police and of besieged black American masculinity. Lines leap out with grave and chilling resonance. “Stop killing us,” says Moses (Jon Michael Hill), who is one part of the duo alongside Kitch (Julian Parker).
Like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, from which Nwandu’s script takes its inspiration, Moses and Kitch are in a perpetual state of waiting but dream of attaining their “true potential” even as they remain stuck in their immovable fates. “You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason,” reflected James Baldwin in 1962 about limits on the black American dream. These men find themselves just as restricted.
A British production of Pass Over earlier this year at the Kiln in London, and starring Paapa Essiedu and Gershwyn Eustache Jr, drew out its Beckettian features with artful theatricality. This film steers closer to realism and everyday despair. It is devastating to watch in light of Floyd’s death but also because Lee emphatically points up a connection between fiction and life. Recorded on the stage of the Steppenwolf theatre in Chicago, it begins not in Moses and Kitch’s dramatic world but at one remove, with footage of black people boarding a bus to the theatre and passing the street sign that is later replicated on the stark stage set.
At times, Pass Over deploys the usual illusions of film but Lee’s camera also shows its mechanics. As the drama plays out, there are shots of the live theatre audience that pan across their faces in closeup as gunfire crackles, the white, all-American “good” citizen, Mister (Ryan Hallahan), bares his wolf’s teeth, or a white police officer, played by Blake DeLong, utters a racial obscenity, before swinging back to the stage.
It is clear that Lee’s fiction is in dialogue with the world beyond it, and that he is inviting his audience to join the dots, too. This meta aspect might easily have felt laboured in lesser hands but is deft and dramatic here; the audience is woven into the greater drama without being objectified. The closing segment shows members of the audience again, smiling and posing with their families outside the auditorium, their faces lovingly framed by the camera. It captures, too, the poverty, housing projects and nondescript city street corners well beyond the theatre, which draw our thoughts to real-world proximities in the fiction we have just seen.
If Pass Over feels pertinent now, it also points to the sad historical circularity of white-on-black police violence. Kitch mentions the dead black men of the neighbourhood again and again. Both men also refer to the “plantation” and there is a dismal timelessness to the racial oppression they face: “Same shit … just the date has changed,” says Moses.
As a drama, Pass Over is a masterful tragedy. As a reflection of the world, it is all too real and utterly woeful.
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Source: The Guardian