Get on the Bus

Movie Review By Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997

Anyone else goin' to the Million Man March... it's time to get on the bus!

Spike Lee threw this road movie together very quickly and is quite a refreshing change from his more recent work. Spike Lee, for me, has always had this directing style that was very confrontational, such as "Do the Right Thing", making the situations portrayed seem forced or contrived. "Get on the Bus" is shot very much like a documentary, full of free-hand camera work, jump-cuts, and grainy shots, that focuses on the conversations and experience of twenty men on their way to the Million Man March in Washington D.C. on October 16, 1995. The screenplay by Reggie Rock Blythewood is strong and pulls no punches in dealing with the many facets of race relations and the American black experience.

Do you steal from black people?
Man, what you tell'em I steal man? I stole from nobody.
Okay, do you take what isn't yours, if it's just lying around?
Well sure, man, if it's there.
But you say you care about black people.

This Spike Lee Joint forces you to challenge your assumptions from the opening scene. A black teenager is handcuffed to an older black man and they are walking through a parking lot. Is the younger man a criminal? Is the older man a police officer? Bounty hunter? As the scene plays itself out, we learn that they are father and son, shackled together by a court order, ironically on their way to the Million Man March in Washington D.C. Scenes like this punctuate the entire film. A stop in a Tennessee diner seems to unravel in a fashion leading up to a confrontation between the black and white patrons, but the confrontation never occurs-- everyone gets along. Like the audience, the twenty men on board the bus learn to have their assumptions about the world they live in challenged, bringing about a sense of hope by the end of the journey.

A gay black Republican. Now I know I've seen everything!

The passengers on the bus come from all ends of the socio-economic spectrum. The bus driver (Charles S. Dutton) is the guiding force during the trip, full of inspiration and hope. Evan Thomas Sr. (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) is the father handcuffed to his son (DeAundre Bonds). A nameless member of the Nation of Islam (Gabriel Casseus) keeps to himself during the entire trip, never uttering a word, perhaps a commentary on Farrakhan's ability to bring about change in these men's lives. Jeremiah is an aged unemployed man who serves as a father figure to these men. There are two gay men (Harry Lennix and Isaiah Washington) on board who are quickly singled out for abuse by almost everyone on board. Leading the homophobic diatribe is a would-be actor (Andre Braugher). There's also a light-skinned half-white LAPD officer (Roger Guenveur Smith) and a former gang-member that is seeking redemption. Finally, there is a UCLA film student capturing the entire trip on his video camera (Hill Harper).

I wouldn't expect you to drive a bus to a Klan meeting.

Despite the racial homogeneity on board the bus, these men quickly learn to find reasons for division and bringing up prejudices. The actor is homophobic. The cop's father was shot by a gang-banger, and warns the former gang-member that he will have to arrest him when they return to Los Angeles. Evan is singled out for keeping his son in handcuffs. They pick up a black car salesman in Tennessee who lashes out against Farrakhan, affirmative action, and 'the lazy black people'. GOTB is not afraid to confront such subjects or to brush them aside. A fair airing out of issues takes place, such as the exclusion of women from the Million Man March, and a very touchy scene involving the Jewish fill-in driver (Richard Belzer). He cuts out of the trip halfway because he feels uncomfortable having to drive to a rally led by a man who spouts anti-Semetic and anti-White slurs and calls Judaism 'a gutter religion'. It is a situation difficult to resolve, and so acting on his own values, he walks away.

Well, we wait much longer, we miss the March.
Is that all you care about?

To say that this film is about the Million Man March would be a misnomer. The Million Man March is incidental in this film. The journey that these men undertake and the conversations that they have are what is important here. Like the silent Nation of Islam passenger, in the end, it is not the words or actions of Farrakhan that help these men find understanding and tolerance. Neither is taking part in a march. No, it is their interactions with one another during the trip that has made the difference. The movie ends on a solemn note, though at the same time, it also sends a message of hope for those who strive for true equality.

The real Million Man March won't start until we black men take charge of our own lives and start dealing with crime, drugs, guns, and gangs... and children having children, children killing children, all across this country.

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