Get on the Bus (1996)

Get on the Bus is the story of a group of men riding a bus from L.A. to Washington to attend last year's Million Man March (the film opened on the first anniversary of the March). Being a "Spike Lee Joint," the film does have its faults, and the principle fault of Get on the Bus could have been that it was too much an allegory for "Black Life in America," making characters "stand for" something other than what they are. Fortunately, with a deft and moving script by Reggie Rock Bythewood, Get on the Bus manages to avoid being too preachy, maudlin, or symbolic.

Instead, the film focuses on very real characters, and because they are played by such talented actors with such skill, we really feel we get to know them and perhaps even believe that this rather diverse group could actually have existed, and, in fact, did actually exist to some extent among the million men who marched in Washington.

If you've ever ridden on a bus anywhere for an extended period of time, you'll be familiar with the uncomfortable closeness which makes itself more and more apparent as the trip progresses. Lee shot on 16-millimeter film, Super 8 and video in order to be able to capture that closeness and the volatility it can imply when emotions run high, as they often do during the film.

Brought together in these close quarters are black men from many different backgrounds. There are Evan Thomas Jr. and Sr., a father and son handcuffed together by court order (Thomas Jefferson Byrd and DeAundre Bonds), Jeremiah, an unemployed old man (Ossie Davis), Gary, a mixed-race Los Angeles police officer (Roger Guenveur Smith), Jamal, a Black Muslim who used to be a gang member, Kyle and Randall, a gay couple (Isaiah Washington and Harry J. Lennix), Flip, a politically incorrect aspiring actor (Andre Braugher), Xavier, a UCLA film student (Hill Harper) who is documenting it all for class, George, the bus driver (Charles S. Dutton), and Wendell, a Lexus dealer who joins them along the way (Wendell Pierce in a hilarious cameo), among others.

It is quite, quite rare for Hollywood to portray any group of black characters of this size. If it happens at all, it is usually a comedy or a gang-ghetto film. Two recent exceptions, featuring female characters, are Forest Whitaker's Waiting to Exhale and F. Gary Gray's excellent Set It Off (which takes place in South Central Los Angeles but is really a heist film). But for male characters, there is a lack of serious, well written roles which can get away from the now-familiar stereotypes. Spike Lee's movies have always offered these opportunities, and that's what the Million Man March was about as well: black men empowering themselves.

Spike Lee put together a group of fifteen black investors to shoot Get on the Bus, including Danny Glover, Johnnie Cochran, Wesley Snipes, Robert Guillaume, Spike Lee himself and screenwriter Reggie Rock Bythewood. It gave them the independence to go where they wanted to go with the film and also returned Spike Lee to his most creative outlet, the independent film. His recent efforts for studios, Clockers and Girl 6, were less than stellar examples of what he is capable of. But Get on the Bus fulfills his promise and more.

As they make their way across the country, the men on the bus talk about everything. It really feels like eavesdropping for two hours. They talk about growing up, their families, their love lives, their careers. They exchange political, cultural, and religious ideas. I personally did not know quite what to expect from this film at first. I thought for some reason I can't remember that Spike Lee might try to brush certain things under the rug, if only to concentrate on the characters more, but instead, they hit every hot button, from O.J. Simpson to Louis Farrakhan to Jesse Jackson to homophobia to gang violence to the exclusion of women from the March. And it works not only to address these specific topics, but to further our belief in the reality of the characters.

Particularly tough to watch are several scenes in which the emotions are so strong and yet so underground that the tension is truly nerve-wracking.

One such scene is when Richard Belzer, who plays a Jewish bus driver brought on board when the bus broke down, decides to leave the bus as a protest against Farrakhan's anti-Semitism. The exchange between Dutton and Belzer is wonderfully honest and frank, probably more than it ever would have been in real life, but it presents the issue as it is: two opposing viewpoints both based in honorable motives, but necessarily exclusive of each other.

Another such sequence is when Evan Jr. is let off of his handcuffs by his father for a moment, and he tries to flee. Of course, there's nowhere for him to go, but the scene when he is fleeing through the Southern woods with his chains on manages to resonate beyond the patness of the actual image, and the scene between Byrd and Bonds is a real tear-jerker.

But easily the most haunting confrontation in the film is that which takes place between Gary, the police officer, and Jamal, the reformed gang-banger. Their world views and life experiences are so far apart from each other for two black men living in South Central that they cannot relate, even if both of them are willing. Their confrontation also brings up issues of reformation, repentance, and the limits of forgiveness.

There are no false notes among the cast. Each of them has a full, interesting part to play, and they play them to the hilt. But the real soul of the film, as in Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever, is Ossie Davis.

Davis plays Jeremiah, a man who has lost his job and his family. Though we don't learn everything about him, it seems that he has "dropped out," perhaps wasted too much of his time lamenting what he has lost in a bottle. But he's on the road back now, finally, and the Million Man March is going to be something he is going to use to recharge himself, rededicate himself to himself and the wider community around him.

His prayers, which start and end the movie, reflect a faith that is deep, unshakable, and remarkably humble and simple.

Jeremiah talks about how he lost his way, about black history and what it is supposed to mean, and about the importance of coming together. Ossie Davis's portrayal definitely stands out among the supporting performances of the year.

Davis also plays the drum, but that's just part of the music involved in the film. Get on the Bus sings along with every song on the soundtrack, and as we watch their bus, the Spotted Owl, driving down desert highways and country roads to a great rendezvous in our nation's capital, the sun impossibly bright and the colors rich and neon on the Super-8 film stock, there's not one doubt that healing is better than stasis, hope is better than hate, and America is the place where that has to happen for everyone, together. It won't be easy, it won't be quickly accomplished, but it will be worthwhile.

Links for Get on the Bus

Internet Movie Database Entry

Roger Ebert Review


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