Passing Strange

Stew & Daniel Breaker - photo (partial) by ©Carol Rosegg

A melding of serious drama, sarcastic humor, and brash power pop attitude, this marks a watershed moment in the life of a musical adventurer who has yet to bask in the spotlight.

Passing Strange

Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Stew, De'Adre Aziza, Eisa Davis, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge, Rebecca Naomi-Jones, Daniel Breaker
Distributor: IFC Films
Release Date: 2010-01-12

I’m a bit of a theater snob, truth be told. Oh, I don’t mean that I’m infatuated with avant-garde or experimental pieces. Nor, for that matter, do I feel seduced by haughty Shakespeare revivals. In fact, Middle English narcotizes me.

No, what I’m referring to is my preference for small-scale drama in a stage environment. Spectacle is best left, I feel, to the silver screen, where a good director can plumb his or her bag of tricks and dazzle viewers with innovative angles, or glide through an entire neighborhood with ease, as Wise and Robbins did with the landmark West Side Story. And let’s face it, if you’re relegated to the back row, are you really having the same experience as the lucky patron who can breathe onto the stage? Hardly.

As I watched Spike Lee’s – and it’s not really his – Passing Strange, I slowly began to modify this narrow purview. I hadn’t realized that it wasn’t an adaptation of Stew’s musical showpiece, but rather, a videotaped record of the play, with no changes wrought by Spike. If you weren’t fortunate enough to catch this towering achievement on Broadway or in its Berkeley premiere run, then you may be astonished by its no holding back inventiveness. With numerous close-ups and side angle shots, Lee has succeeded in making the play an intimate experience for anyone watching from the comfort of their Barcalounger.

And spectacle? Stew, nee Mark Stewart( w/ collaborator Heidi Rodewald), creates an amazing sonic collage of spoken word angst, emotional tunes, and wicked musical flourishes in telling his semi-autobiographical tale of a South L.A. teen who flees to Europe in the late '70s to find himself. Not the first to attempt this, of course, but Stew effortlessly unfurls his personal stamp in universal longing.

For the uninitiated, Stew is the driving force behind the now-disbanded Los Angeles trio The Negro Problem, whose infectious, snarky songs drew on seemingly disparate genres like alternative rock, soul, show tunes, and whatever else crossed mark Stewart’s consciousness. The group never had much chart action – it’s unlikely you’d have heard them anywhere else but NPR -- but they were critical darlings in the '90s, and any L.A hipster-cum-music geek of that era – especially the sort you might read about on Stuff White People Like – was happy to declare themselves a TNP aficionado.

Passing Strange, developed largely through the Sundance Institute, tells the story of the unnamed Youth, a black teenager anxious to escape the stultifying churchiness of his mother’s household and fulfill dreams he feels are incompatible with his environment. Daniel Breaker plays Youth, and we sense his nerdiness, his desire to find kindred souls, his fear of becoming a practical person leading a drab, practical existence, as he imagines of his mother.

In a hilarious scene, Youth encounters an aggressive young woman called Brown Sugar, who desires him, but desires to change him even more. She informs the hapless Youth that he will graduate from a prestigious historically-black college, buy her a beautiful home filled with African objets d’art , and, oddly, also “blacken” himself up, as he seems too whitebread to suit her paradoxical fantasia of Afrocentric buppiedom. She’s clearly barkin’ up the wrong man, as Youth will have none of it, and soon heads to Europe.

In this respect, Youth follows a trajectory blazed by artistic forebears like James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, and more jazzmen than anyone could name. In their heyday, Europe represented a land of milk and honey, where one could cast off the stubborn racial baggage placed on one’s shoulders in the good ol’ USA, and blend into society, with a touch of exoticism opening doors of opportunity. It’s a bit ironic that Youth is excoriated by friends and family for seeking his niche when that very same impulse arguably created both the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights movement of the '50s and '60s, of which Youth is so obviously a product of.

Not surprisingly, Youth lets loose his reins amidst the cavalier debauchery of Amsterdam, his first stop on the Continent, though he eventually makes his way to a free squat in Berlin, spending much of his time milking his Afro-American blackness for all it’s worth. He encounters unthinking casual racial ignorance, not to mention Christmas-worshipping Marxist revolutionaries and a lovely African girl, Desi, who reminds him that the struggle for gender equality in her homeland mirrors that of American blacks’ push for full citizenship during Youth’s childhood.

I couldn’t help thinking that the portly Stew, born a generation earlier, might have been an essential contributor to ABC’s Schoolhouse Rock. His clever, verbose story-songs seem tailor-made for that underrated program, which my generation hungrily digested with our Saturday morning cereal. His speaking voice is eerily redolent of the noted theologian Peter Gomes, albeit a bit less fey, but he can cut loose like nobody’s business; at the tail end of “Amsterdam”, he morphs into an R&B belter, and any A & R man from Stax Records would have been proud to sign him. The raucous rocker “May Day” is also a highlight, as well as some wall-of-sound six-string dissonance in “Merci Beaucoup”.

Passing Strange also raises the specter of closetedness and denial amongst African-American homosexual men, in the persona of Mr. Franklin, played feverishly by Colman Domingo, a classic church queen who has chosen to sublimate his desire to be fabulous by wringing powerful music out of the choir, shrugging off the bitter irony of tethering himself to an institution which has little use for his orientation, but will use his vibrancy, his command of the sacred and the profane, to keep his kind behind locked doors.

Domingo also shines in a separate role, as the horrifying Mr. Venus, spitting out the words to “Surface” in a scratchy, gravelly tone, his face partially obscured by disfiguring makeup. I may be reading too much into this, but is Venus’ frightening visage a possible metaphor for the havoc that AIDS would wreak on black gay men?

Love or hate him, no other director working in mainstream cinema has questioned and challenged notions of African-American identity as thoroughly as Spike Lee. Stating that Passing Strange isn’t truly his movie is not in any way a diss, merely an acknowledgment that Spike recognized the genius inherent in the production, and sought only to document this, to stay out of the way, so to speak. Not everyone can afford a choice seat at the Belasco Theater, nor is everyone particularly interested in stage drama, and Lee reportedly wanted the show immortalized on videotape, for all to see.

Extras abound on the DVD, the most informative being an interview with Stew and Heidi in which Stew prays that “Passing” won’t be “the artistic peak of my life”, and admits that he had “a goal to end up in a Spike Lee film”. We also get a gossipy tour of New York’s famed Belasco, and backstage doings during the final performance.

Passing Strange is an inspirational rock opera that provokes thought as well as toe-tapping, or air guitar-strumming, as it were. A melding of serious drama, sarcastic humor, and brash power pop attitude, it marks a watershed moment in the life of a musical adventurer who has yet to bask in the spotlight. Let’s hope that Passing Strange is merely a preview of brilliance to come.







In Amy Seimetz's 'She Dies Tomorrow', Death Is Neither Delusion Nor Denial

Amy Seimetz's She Dies Tomorrow makes one wonder, is it possible for cinema to authentically convey a dream, or like death, is it something beyond our control?


The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.


John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.


Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.


Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.


Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.


Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.


Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.


Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.