Filmed stage plays are a pretty iffy proposition. Either they suck the air out of what makes the live theater experience so intimate and electrifying, or they fail to open up the drama enough to become cinematic. Spike Lee’s new Amazon Studios joint teases at a different approach by kicking off with a busload of black teenagers traveling to Chicago’s legendary Steppenwolf Theatre to attend a production of Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over — a ripped-from-the-headlines meditation on race, urban hopelessness, and police brutality.
A heated inner-city riff on Samuel Beckett’s stalemate of absurdity Waiting for Godot, the play stars Jon Michael Hill and Julian Parker as Kitch and Moses, a pair of best friends hanging out at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and 64th Street. As gunshots pop off in the distance, the two tease each other and talk trash while making plans that they know, deep down, will never materialize — like getting far, far away from this godforsaken Chicago intersection.
The dialogue mixes Sunday school and the streets, and it’s funny, profane, and occasionally poignant when it’s not a bit too on the nose. Lee manages to make the intentionally static action feel less claustrophobic and stagy than it could have been, even if he emotionally cheats by panning to the audience for their reactions during the play’s most powerful moments. Pass Over won’t tell anyone anything they don’t already know, but Nwandu is an undeniably talented and timely voice — one that howls to be heard. And Lee, an important part of this conversation going on three decades now, has done right by her. B