Spike Lee’s ‘Pass Over,’ an Offbeat Melding of Cinema and Theater

Posted May 10, 2018 10:09 p.m. EDT

The latest picture by the prolific and ever-stimulating filmmaker Spike Lee, “BlacKkKlansman,” is in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. His other 2018 movie, “Pass Over,” is on Amazon Video and free to Prime members. It’s a superb film, one that, as the saying goes, finds the director working at the height of his powers. (It’s also a rare instance of an Amazon production debuting on the video site with no theatrical release.)

“Pass Over” is an adaptation of a play by Antoinette Nwandu, produced at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, where it was directed by Danya Taymor. I call it an adaptation even though it is, in large part, a film of the play, shot during a stage performance, and featuring glimpses of audience members laughing or gasping during crucial scenes.

Lee’s movie begins with a group boarding a bus bound for the Steppenwolf. A shot of the corner of Martin Luther King Drive and 64th Street in Chicago, in daylight, changes in a match cut to the prop street sign on the stage. At the foot of the sign, Kitch (Julian Parker) frets while Moses (Jon Michael Hill) sleeps. When Moses wakes, these two young African-American men contemplate, with a lot of profanity, the aimlessness of their lives while trying to dodge stray bullets.

“I got plans, you hear me? Big ole plans,” one of them boasts. While their dialogue is stocked with allusions to redemption, their despair is such that the place they wish to “pass over” is revealed as the valley of death. The question becomes how to break the death spiral the characters feel trapped in.

Lee shoots the stage from various intimate angles. His techniques here explode the notion of a “filmed play.” He puts you with the characters, but also puts you with the audience; it’s a multidimensional experience, with emotional resonances that once seemed unique to either theatrical or cinematic form. It is a remarkable and remarkably pertinent movie.

“Pass Over” is a fiction informed by actual events. “Stranger Fruit” is a documentary about one of those events. “They shot that boy because they wanted to shoot that boy” is the blunt conclusion of one of the interviewees in this documentary by Jason Pollock about the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. The movie is available on VOD; it will air on Starz on June 18 and will be streamable on the Starz app.

This version of the film is a new one; when the picture was shown at the 2017 South by Southwest film festival, it contained previously unreleased surveillance camera footage of the convenience store that Brown visited the day before his shooting. The director’s interpretation of the newly released footage caused some controversy, eliciting pushback from Ferguson officials and some media commentators. Pollock has expanded the film to take that controversy into account.

The expanded version is slightly awkward, since Pollock leaves in the part of the film in which he calls the surveillance footage that was released by police in the aftermath of Brown’s death “completely irrelevant.” There are several nits one can pick with this movie. Pollock’s narration, particularly in the beginning, is prosaic. I found myself thinking more than once that contemporary documentary filmmakers interested in social justice would do better to aspire to Marcel Ophuls.

Yet “Stranger Fruit” does tell a disturbing story and is frequently pretty smart in how it does so. Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, was shot several times after a confrontation with a police officer, Darren Wilson, his body left on the street for hours after his death. In the wake of the shooting, local police presented narratives intended to cast aspersions on Brown’s character and lay out a coherent rationale for his death. Pollock conducts several compelling interviews and has good ears and eyes for revealing juxtapositions. Wilson’s protestation that “you can’t perform the duties of a police officer and have racism in you” finds a devastating counterpoint in archival footage of a speech in which Malcolm X says, “The police are able to use the press to make the white person think that 90 to 99 percent of the Negroes are criminals.”

In the early part of this century there seemed to be a miniboom in low-budget filmmaking in the United States. The most publicity went to a loose affiliation of directors sometimes grouped under the term “Mumblecore.” One of them, Alejandro Adams, based in California’s Bay Area, produced work during this period that was too prickly and individual to categorize under any rubric. His feature films (four, so far) were recently put up on Amazon Video and are free for Prime members. (Three of these films were written with Marya Murphy, who also appears as a performer in two of the films, and was a co-producer of all of them.)

“Around the Bay,” Adams’ first film, is a portrait of a dysfunctional family that possesses, as critic Vadim Rizov has observed, some of the rough power of a Maurice Pialat movie. “Canary,” Adams’ next picture, is a slightly futuristic scenario about the marketing schemes of a firm selling human organs. It has conceptual hints of Godard’s “Alphaville” and a chilly through-line concerning the banality of human awfulness. Adams’ observations on this topic are applied to an oblique thriller framework in “Babnik,” about a Russian immigrant in California whose gambling debts put him in a tricky position: The other Russians he owes want him to make good on the debt by kidnapping a teenage girl — the men are also sex traffickers.

Finally, in his 2012 film “Amity,” Adams plumbs the depths of toxic masculinity. The movie is about Greg, an aggressive Navy vet who tries to reconnect with his teenage daughter by meeting her in a limo on the night of her high-school graduation. She rebuffs him, and Greg’s evening turns into one of abrasive frustration as he verbally jousts with his driver and a group of women he picks up with the limo later that evening.

It’s a tense and uncomfortable experience, in all the right ways. Adams has a deceptive style; initially his films seem loosely shot, but the aggregation of seemingly tossed-off scenes tightens like a noose. The director has informed me that he’s working on some new projects; I do hope they come to fruition. In the meantime, this is a distinctive and provocative body of work.