Get on the Bus
Rated R, 122 min. Directed by Spike Lee. Starring Ossie Davis, Charles S. Dutton, Richard Belzer, Deaundre Bonds, Andre Braugher, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Gabriel Casseus, Albert Hall, Hill Harper, Harry Lennix, Bernie Mac, Wendell Pierce, Roger Guenveur Smith, Isaiah Washington, Steve White.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 18, 1996
Spike Lee's one-year anniversary commemoration of the Million Man March is a smart, funny, passionate, and open-ended tribute to the spirit of the unprecedented gathering that so galvanized the hearts and minds of African-American men. The movie focuses not on the event itself but instead on the individuals who heard the call and their various reasons for traveling to Washington to become part of such a historic community. Get on the Bus is something of a return to form for Lee; it is his best-realized project since his seminal Do the Right Thing. Taking the form of a road movie, the story parks a dozen or so men on a bus traveling from L.A.'s South Central to the nation's capital and, over the course of the three-day journey, lets the men thrash out their differing beliefs, attitudes, prejudices, and politics. Lots of ideas and opinions bounce around in cramped quarters -- in fact, the majority of the film's action occurs within the confines of the bus. And the film's action consists of this ensemble of characters, strangers all, talking back and forth -- probing, goading, discussing, arguing everything from skin color, sexual preference, the Nation of Islam, and the four “R”s of Hollywood's depiction of black men (rap, rape, rob, and riot). Consensus may never be attained, but out of the process community grows. The men onboard include a gangbanger-turned-Black Muslim (Casseus ), a light-skinned cop of mixed parentage whose policeman-father was killed by a black man (Smith), a gay couple in the throes of their final lovers' quarrel (Washington and Lennix), a student filmmaker who's recording everything for posterity (Harper), an errant teen (Bonds) who is chained by court order to his long-absent father (Byrd), a rising actor whose caustic comments incite many an argument (Braugher), and an older rider whose kind and gentle demeanor belies a lifetime of compromises and disappointments. Dutton shines as the trip's coordinator and relief driver. The original busdriver (Hall) is prevented from completing the trip after he drives the vehicle into a ditch; his replacement is a white, liberal Jew (Belzer), who voluntarily abandons the trip after some bullying by the men and the realization that he cannot in good conscience deliver these passengers to a rally organized by someone he regards as a dangerous anti-Semite, Minister Louis Farrakhan. Also, along the way, a few women get to voice their feelings about their exclusion from the march. Get on the Bus was shot on a very modest budget with Super-16 film stock on a three-week shooting schedule, and also uses a lot of hand-held camerawork and many of Lee's other recurrent visual stylizations -- techniques that work well within the story's confined setting. The movie was uniquely financed with funds raised by 15 African-American male investors who are named at the end of the credits. Occasionally, certain aspects of the film, which can seem overly schematic and speech-dotted, work less effectively than others. However, with its complexity of viewpoints, Get on the Bus has to be seen as one of Spike Lee's most mature visions to date. If we were to mix our social movements with the same ease with which we mix metaphors, then Ken Kesey's old admonishments about being either on the bus or off the bus has been brought up to date by Spike Lee whose new movie is the equivalent of the conductor's cry of “All aboard.”