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Spike Lee, Passing Strange, 2009, color film in HD, 135 minutes. Production still. Stew, De'Adre Aziza, Colman Domingo, Daniel Breaker, Chad Goodridge, Heidi Rodewald, and Rebecca Naomi. Photo: David Lee.


IN DO THE RIGHT THING (1989), Spike Lee introduced the world to radicals Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out and had audiences everywhere questioning whether Mookie “did the right thing.” Twenty years later, the color line still smolders from Bed-Stuy to Burbank, and despite utopian postracial chatter, the dominant media narratives figuring blackness continue to thrive on stereotype rather than revolution.

Enter Lee in 2009, with a new creative compatriot named Stew—singer, songwriter, and bona fide star of the Tony Award–winning musical Passing Strange. Stew’s semiautobiographical stage production chronicles a young black outsider from South Los Angeles as he struggles to find himself through drugs, sex, and music. First under the wing of a closeted choir director and then with a bevy of bohemians in Europe, he remains in hot pursuit of the forever-fleeting “real.” Like many of Lee’s preceding cinematic stories, Stew’s rebellious, cathartic tale doubles as an examination of blackness and the alienation rooted even within the community.

Employing fourteen probing high-definition cameras, Lee filmed the rock musical’s final two performances at the Belasco Theater in New York, adding footage later shot without an audience. Daring angles and close-ups of the actors’ wildly expressive faces are as reminiscent of Do the Right Thing as a renegade concert DVD. Lee far exceeds his humbly stated purpose: to document the stage production for “generations and generations to see.” He is able to transmit through film the joy of being onstage. As the outstanding ensemble cast ecstatically dances through the last curtain call, viewers can practically smell the sweat-soaked performers’ gift of love and collaboration. Lee registers those emotions exaggerated to epic, stage-worthy proportions, emotions that, by nature of their very theatricality, most aptly approach the real that Stew (and the artist in so many of us) is perennially searching for in life.

Passing Strange: The Movie opens August 21 at the IFC Center in New York and will be on-demand nationwide starting August 26. For more details, click here.

Cameron Shaw