Wednesday October 16, 1996
Director Spike Lee has made angry films, epic films, even sentimental films. But he's not made anything as heartfelt and finally celebratory as "Get on the Bus."
Everything about this work--from the fast pace at which it was shot to its unconventional financing via a group of African American investors--bespeaks a level of commitment on the part of its participants, eager to do something in the spirit of the "Million Man March" on Washington that is the film's centerpiece and the reason it's being released today, the one-year anniversary of the event.
The fear about a project like this is that it will turn out to be a well-meaning but ineffectual public service announcement, high on agitprop and low on human connection. And though "Get on the Bus" does have its contrived and too-on-the-nose moments, because Reggie Rock Bythewood's script is finally about things that are real and significant, it's successful at holding our interest, at making us care and believe.
While the Million Man March on Washington called by minister Louis Farrakhan is its nominal subject, "Get on the Bus" really isn't about the event in any conventional "You Are There" sense. Instead it's a potent dramatization of many of the issues facing African American men, a look at the wounds that need healing and the rifts that need closing, a scenario that is definitely not business as usual as the subject for a major studio release.
Structured like one of those World War II movies in which everyone in the platoon has a different story, "Get on the Bus" follows a group of men on a three-day journey between the First AME Church in South-Central Los Angeles and the nation's capital. The voyage on the Spotted Owl coach turns out to be a nonstop talkathon that touches all kinds of bases. Yes, speeches are made, but the characters are strong enough so that it doesn't seem that way.
In charge of the bus is George (the magnetic Charles S. Dutton), who enforces the no alcohol, no drugs, no smoking rules. Not all of the passengers he checks in manage to have their full say (in fact, the one who looks like he might be a Farrakhan follower says not a word), but nearly a dozen men get to sound off.
The old-timer of the group is Jeremiah (Ossie Davis), who bemuses the others with his 1960s-style "black power, brothers" greeting. A student of African drums, Jeremiah ends up befriending Xavier (Hill Harper), a UCLA film student nicknamed (no kidding) "Spike Junior" who is getting everything down on videotape.
Two pairs of men arrive with built-in conflicts. Kyle (Isaiah Washington) and Randall (Harry Lennix) are a gay couple who are not sure they want to stay a couple. And Evan Thomas Sr. (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) is an absentee father who has his gangbanger son Junior (DeAundre Bonds) shackled to him with a thin chain because of a court order. Naturally the other guys start to call them "the Defiant Ones."
Showing up on their own are Gary (Roger Guenveur Smith), a light-skinned resident of Pasadena, and Jamal (Gabriel Casseus), a follower of traditional Islam. The wild card on the bus, a natural troublemaker, is Flip (Andre Braugher), an arrogant actor intent on outshining Denzel Washington if he ever gets the chance.
Between them, these men get into it on any number of issues, including skin color, sexual preference, gang violence, the status of women, even, when a wealthy Memphis car dealer smartly played by Wendell Pierce joins their group, whether it's appropriate for a black man to vote Republican.
Some of these discussions, notably a consideration of Farrakhan's anti-Semitism by Richard Belzer's Jewish bus driver, are flat and pro forma. What's remarkable, and a credit to everyone, especially the actors, is how engaging most of the conversation is. Though they do nothing but talk, "Get on the Bus' " people are recognizably human, not flesh-and-blood position papers.
All this pays off in a scene in which the Spotted Owl is arbitrarily rousted by Tennessee state troopers as a possible transporter of drugs. It sounds schematic, but because we have spent time with these men, we wince at the unfairness and pain associated with their racially based harassment. It's a strong moment and one "Get on the Bus" has earned.
As do many of Spike Lee's films, "Get on the Bus" focuses finally on questions of empowerment. And when one of its characters says "the real Million Man March won't start until we black men take charge of our lives," you can almost see the director nodding his head in emphatic agreement.
Get on the Bus, 1996. R, for language. A Spike Lee Joint, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Spike Lee. Producers Reuben Cannon, Bill Borden, Barry Rosenbush. Executive producer Spike Lee. Screenplay by Reggie Rock Bythewood. Cinematographer Elliot Davis. Editor Leander T. Sales. Costumes Sandra Hernandez. Music Terence Blanchard. Production design Ina Mayhew. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes. Richard Belzer as Rick. DeAundre Bonds as Junior. Andre Braugher as Flip. Thomas Jefferson Byrd as Evan Thomas Sr.. Gabriel Casseus as Jamal. Albert Hall as Craig. Hill Harper as Xavier. Harry Lennix as Randall. Bernie Mac as Jay. Wendell Pierce as Wendell. Roger Guenveur Smith as Gary. Isaiah Washington as Kyle. Steve White as Mike. Ossie Davis as Jeremiah. Charles S. Dutton as George.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times