Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For March, we celebrate the birthday (and the decades-long filmography) of one of America’s most pioneering Black filmmakers, Spike Lee. Read the rest of our coverage here.
“…’twas strange; ‘twas passing strange.”Othello, Act 1 Scene 3
2008 was a strange year indeed. One need only look at the nominees for Best Musical to see how confused The United States was about race discourse and how unprepared for what was to immediately follow later that year as the housing bubble burst.
Skating by on the sheer audacity of it all was Xanadu, a so-so adaptation of that other cult Olivia Newton-John film phenomenon. (The better one, in my un-humble opinion.) White. Just…whiteness. Mythical whiteness. Feathered whiteness. Whiteness rolling by so fast it forms its own rainbow.
Did you remember they adapted John Waters’ Cry-Baby for Broadway? Me either. I’m ashamed.
Nestled here on the spectrum of likely winners, we have the subject of Spike Lee’s 2009 film Passing Strange.
But first, we have to acknowledge the year’s double-disc’d juggernaut winner In The Heights, by current reigning musical apostle Lin-Manuel Miranda, writer of the Hamiltome. A vibrant coming-of-age story about a group of diverse youths living in the Puerto Rican Bronx, with numbers that made white patrons stand up and say “By Jove, there are lyrics in this musical! Lyrics, I tell you!” In the Heights creates an explosive and exciting world within one place. America’s a melting pot there.
Over at the Belasco, however, Passing Strange set itself the difficult task of turning one place into the entire world. Told on a bare stage with only chairs as props, Passing Strange is a semi-autobiographical musical experience by mononymed maestro Stew. The narrative follows Youth (Daniel Breaker), a black middle-class American on his globe-trotting quest for “the real” who, along the way, finds maturity and self-discovery.
Despite the simplicity of its design, Passing Strange is a sprawling, picaresque production that travels from middle-class South Central Los Angeles to weed cafes of Amsterdam, the rioting streets of Berlin, and back again. Stew has also written a show with remarkable interiority as well. Along with the deeply personal and philosophical musical numbers, Youth’s inner life is articulated through Stew’s often humorous but cutting meta-narration. In fact, one of the faults of the show is that its philosophy can sometimes swallow the plot.
Living up to its name, it’s difficult to categorize Passing Strange or Lee’s filmed version. As Stew articulated in an interview with NPR, to call this a “rock musical” or “rock opera” is to mislead both fans of rock music and musical theatre. The show consciously does not include typical show tunes nor is the music an identifiable style of rock music. Instead, the show combines spoken word, rap, gospel, prog rock, and Broadway to create a unique musical tone that is critical, sarcastic, and aggressive. Perfect material for a Spike Lee joint.
It also gives Lee a chance to explore things he doesn’t normally. A lot of the show takes place outside of the US, so he gets to articulate the Black American Experience Abroad in a way that resonates with James Baldwin or Langston Hughes in Paris. Youth, like his cultural ancestors, leaves The United States to escape the structural, cultural, and social confines of Black American life. His journey abroad opens up his creative mind by exposing him to sex, drugs, Eurocinema, and the ever-stimulating ‘continental philosophy’.
The show combines spoken word, rap, gospel, prog rock, and Broadway to create a unique musical tone that is critical, sarcastic, and aggressive. Perfect material for a Spike Lee joint.
So much of our public idea of Spike Lee is associated with his Americanness. With the exception of Miracle at St. Anna and Passing Strange, Lee’s films rarely leave the continental United States; hell, they rarely leave New York City.
By presenting Youth’s Candide-esque global journey of self-cultivation, Lee gives us a parallel to the visit to Mecca we see in Malcolm X. Here we also have a black American seeking enlightenment, leaving the United States, and gaining perspective on American racism (and thus himself and the nature of reality. Where Malcolm resolves at the end of his pilgrimage to “not be a racist” and finds spiritual bonds across races, Youth finds himself still haunted by race while he’s abroad.
But Passing Strange brings some kinky race play to this party by having all the white “multicultural” Europeans played by the all-black ensemble. Bamboozled let Lee tickle us with an uncomfortable confrontation of race history. Passing Strange lets him fully relish in the irony. He makes sure the audience is up close when cringe-worthy white people gaffs like a Dutch bohemian misspeaking and saying “in my next life, I want to be incarcerated as a black person.” The live audience laughs too knowingly at all the layers embedded in the joke at once.
Passing Strange: The Movie is unlike any other joint in the novelty New York Knicks carrying case. This is a filmed live performance. Cut together from the final two nights of Passing Strange’s run at the Belasco Theatre, the movie’s first function is to archive a uniquely black Broadway show. It does not announce itself as a “joint” until the closing credits because it is more of a document. Spike’s role as director graciously fades to the background to support Stew’s vision. Lee’s touch is largely invisible by the end as we watch the ecstatic moment in which Stew is visited by his own creative journey and loses himself in the power of the moment.
But no one wants a subtle Spike Lee, so, fortunately, his hand is still noticeably all over Passing Strange: The Movie. Spike filmed the last two performances for the audience responses and crowd shots, but he also filmed the show a third time without an audience. This allowed him to build in new perspectives within the stage. The show’s lack of set allows Lee to move freely between the ever-present performers and band.
Lee takes the flat experience of watching theatre and uses the camera to give a dynamic viewership experience that gets so close we can see the sweat. Since Do The Right Thing, his talent for cutting music to create tense, aggressive sequences. Consider the way Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and the film editing meld to create the sense of boiling tensions. Lee this over seamlessly to Passing Strange: The Movie, uplifting Stew’s already rageful, poetic music by accentuating them in his editing.
Though he did not conceive or write this material, Passing Strange: The Movie is still very much a Spike Lee joint. That he chose to document this show is not really surprising: It is a deeply sarcastic play that is vocally proud of its blackness. It’s about the spiritual journey of a black creative, as much about fighting the system as fighting the creative form.
By making the choice to commit Passing Strange to film, Spike Lee showed himself as a prescient commentator of American race relations. At a time when American race discourse was veering wildly into “post-racial” rhetoric after Obama’s election, Stew and Spike Lee anticipated a cynicism that outpaced any temporary whitewashed optimism of the times.
In calling Othello’s story “passing strange”, Desdemona means she finds it uncommonly unusual. Passing Strange: The Movie is just that. It does not fit into any genre of performance or film, nor did it fit in the times in which it was made. But looking at it now, it feels more relevant than ever.