Get On the Bus

In the days after the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., it was interesting to see it through the wary lens of the white media. We heard about Louis Farrakhan (what’s he up to this time?). We heard about the whiff of sexism in the men-only gathering. We heard about the hopes and doubts that African-American men (seen, as always, as a monolith) would find peace in unity, especially in the tense days after the O.J. verdict.

What we didn’t hear about, except in sidebars and snippets, was the human element. What did the March mean to the men of wildly different backgrounds, generations, and beliefs? Spike Lee’s Get On the Bus throws us in with fifteen men who seem to have been selected for maximum friction. The movie, which rarely leaves the bus, is almost African-American Buffalo. It’s a feat of metaphor and rhetoric — a lot of talk before the “real” story happens (the March is seen only in fuzzy video clips near the end).

One can almost imagine Lee and scripter Reggie Rock Bythewood checking off their list of types. There’s the gang-banger turned Muslim (Gabriel Cassus), the biracial cop (Roger Guenveur Smith), the downsized old-timer (Ossie Davis), the gay couple (Isaiah Washington and Harry Lennix), the camcorder-toting Spike wannabe (Hill Harper), the absentee dad (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) and his wayward son (De’aundre Bonds), the arrogant actor (Andre Braugher), and a trio of drivers (Charles S. Dutton, Albert Hall, and Richard Belzer).

That these men are types, not stereotypes, is due mainly to the performances. Bythewood’s script isn’t bad — it’s sometimes very good — but it’s full of speeches and actor’s moments. In this brand of drama, everyone must stand and unfold himself while Lee zeroes in. Get On the Bus is Spike Lee’s first feature in which he doesn’t appear onscreen, though the kid with the camera is his obvious surrogate (at one point, Charles Dutton waves the kid away dismissively and says something like “Okay, Spike Lee, get the camera outta my face”), and Lee’s camera itself becomes a character. The movie is grainy and jump-cutty, like Lee’s other recent films, making visual jazz out of talking heads.

Lee knows he has a potent metaphor in the bus itself, which resonates with memories of Rosa Parks and school busing. The vehicle of past oppression becomes a symbol of forward movement toward empowerment. You’re either on the bus or you’re not. Some of the men have doubts, and Richard Belzer, as the Jewish driver, elects to get off. He misses the point, but then so do a few of the passengers.

Of the actors along for the ride, veterans Dutton and Davis offer their usual impeccable gravity (though a tragic plot twist mars Davis’s characterization). Washington, of Lee’s Clockers and Girl 6, is fine as the bitter Gulf War vet who found himself doubly ostracized as a gay black Marine. Braugher, of TV’s Homicide, is bitingly funny as the egotistical, womanizing actor.

Get On the Bus, in the end, is a film in the form of a question: Are you on the bus or not? Are you going to stand still or help move things forward? The black men in the movie answer in different ways. But we don’t have to be black or male to find the question relevant, or to seek our own answer.

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