Get On the Bus

Tucson Weekly

DIRECTED BY: Spike Lee

REVIEWED: 10-24-96

HOLLYWOOD HAS US all summed up," complains the bus driver in Spike Lee's Get on the Bus, a film commemorating the one-year anniversary of the Million Man March. "Yeah," replies his young passenger, "we're reduced to the four R's: rape, rap, robbery and riot." Nothing could be further from the truth in this film, a road movie about a disparate group of African American men traveling from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to attend the rally organized by Louis Farrakhan. What we are in for, in fact, is a feel-good voyage of political and personal discovery that has more in common with a group therapy session than it does with Blaxsploitation, action movies and mainstream Hollywood racial stereotypes.

Screenwriter Reggie Rock Bythewood (one of the underwriters of this production, along with Danny Glover, Wesley Snipes and Johnnie Cochran, among others), has essentially adopted the formula for a one-act play, with almost all of the action taking place on one set--the bus, with the occasional rest stop and restaurant. He has also written a political story that at times resembles the stiff, polemical Soviet dramas from the 1970s (celebrating the joys of working in a collective shoe-factory, for example). Thus, we have an assortment of politically-situated types crammed onto the Spotted Owl liner: an absentee father and his delinquent son, a gay Republican, a bi-racial (as he says) cop, a Muslim, an old-timer. The bulk of the movie consists of these men arguing and, in the process, presenting various social and political points of view.

It doesn't sound like a lot of fun, but Get On the Bus is a lot more entertaining that its description would imply. First of all, it is a relief, after months of lightweight summer movies, to see a film that intelligently puts political and personal values on the table. The question of whether the bad weathermen will lick the good weathermen, or if the boy will get the girl, pale next to a lively discussion of what it means to be an African-American man in the 1990s. Secondly, Spike Lee is one of the most stylistically energetic directors around, and it's always a thrill to see what he'll do next. Here, he's expanded the experiments with light and color he began with Clockers and Girl 6, creating grainy, sharply contrasting sequences that resemble pointillist paintings--and which are startlingly beautiful. And lastly, some of the quarrels, events and discussions in Get On the Bus are vital, engaged and moving.

Some are, but not all. Unfortunately, a few of the conflicts have the tinny, salubrious feel of an ABC After School Special, and certain issues are touched on in an aggressively brusque way. Screenwriter Bythewood seems most comfortable discussing the more standard issues of masculinity: fathering, bonding with other men and dealing with women. The story of the father (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) and his son Smooth (a terrific performance by De'aundre Bonds) is particularly engrossing and well-developed; the scenes of the whole bus bonding by singing songs are infectious and have a great, genuine feel. But a gay couple discusses the intricacies of being gay African Americans as if they were on a talk show, then quarrel as though they were conducting a business transaction. The issue of the exclusion of women at the Million Man March is neatly swept aside in a flirty discussion with a pair of beautiful women at a rest stop; and the more unsavory questions about Farrakhan's character are also neatly disposed of by a white, Jewish bus driver (Richard Belzer), who is conveniently a closet racist.

--Stacey Richter

Capsule Reviews
Get On the Bus
Get On the Bus

Other Films by Spike Lee
Clockers
Four Little Girls
Girl 6
He Got Game
Summer of Sam

Film Vault Suggested Links
The Last Temptation of Christ
The People vs. Larry Flynt
Chronicle of a Disappearance

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