Director: Spike Lee
Writer: Reggie Rock Bythewood
Cast: De'aundre Bonds, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Richard Belzer, Gabriel Casseus, Albert Hall, Hill Harper, Harry Lennix, Bernie Mac, Wendell Pierce, Roger Guenveur Smith, Isaiah Washington, Steve White, Ossie Davis, Charles S. Dutton, Andre Braugher
The Million Man March on Washington DC in 1995 was an event organized by the controversial Louis Farrakhan and was designed to improve the image of black men by challenging negative stereotypes. That at least is what the textbooks say about the event. What Spike Lees' film Get on the Bus about The Million Man March does is paint a more intimate, on the ground perspective of a group of black men on their way to the rally.
The story begins by introducing the characters we will be spending the next two hours with boarding the bus. Once the trip has begun, conflicts between as the men begin to clash with each other. Gary, who is both biracial and a police officer whose father was killed in the line of duty, becomes a source of tension that is exacerbated when it is revealed that Jamal (Gabriel Casseus) is a former Crip. Flip (Andre Braugher), a snobbish actor, becomes virulently homophobic when he finds out that Randall and Kyle (Henry Lennix and Isaiah Washington) are a gay couple in the midst of a breakup. Evan and his son Smooth (Thomas Jefferson Byrd and De'Aundre Bonds) who are handcuffed together because of a judge's order after Smooth was caught robbing a grocery store. Further problems arise when the bus breaks down and a new bus driver who happens to be Jewish is brought on as a replacement.
Through it all, Xavier (Hill Harper) a film student makes a noble effort to document the proceedings. As tensions flair, guidance is provided by George (Charles S. Dutton), who organized the trip, and Jeremiah (Ossie Davis), an elderly man who it is eventually revealed to have a serious heart condition that threatens his life.
It is perhaps because my recent film viewing has been exceptionally selective, but I feel that there has been a strong aversion in recent years by filmmakers to avoid actually addressing complex ideas or real life issues in films. As it is, I found myself surprised at the philosophical depth displayed by Spike Lee in Get on the Bus. Lee has always been a controversial figure and accusations against him for being divisive are everywhere. But as it is, every time I watch a Spike Lee Joint I find it to be an exceptionally thoughtful and balanced effort.
Get on the Bus manages to explore a variety of political issues all the while never losing sight of the characters. The dialog at a couple of points comes across as stilted, but given the nature of the production (filmed on a low budget over 16 days) that's to be expected. The issues that are addressed by the characters range cover just about everything from the root causes of economic deprivation faced by African Americans (is it the result of discrimination or welfare causing the breakup of African American families) to what it means to reform oneself after a hard life of crime. At one point, a character points out the problematic symbolism of Evan arriving at the rally with his son in chains.
As the story unfolds, much of the conflict is driven by the prejudices of the characters. The replacement bus driver, Rick (Richard Belzer) finds himself the target of anti-semitic remarks and quits as a result. Several black women express the view that the march is both exclusionary and sexist. Randal and Kyle find themselves the target of homophobia. It's fascinating how Lee was able to present a microcosm within the film of the march that includes most of the criticism against it and Louis Farrakhan without any of these elements coming across as a forced attempt at balance -- or at least none of it felt forced when I watched it the film while unaware of the criticism against Farrakhan for being both anti-semitic and homophobic. While the March is presented as having the potential for positive change for African-American Men, Lee still makes sure to include a cross section of this criticism.
As for the gay couple Kyle and Randal, they are presented as just as dedicated to the march and as integral to the group as any other main character. Furthermore, the unique prejudices they face are presented as no less significant to them than those faced by the other characters. That is there is no game of oppression olympics being played out here. When Kyle reveals that he served in the Marines, he talks about having to face both racism and homophobia when he tells of an incident where he was wounded by friendly fire:
When I woke up, they were laughing and talking about how...they killed two birds with one stone. One nigger, one faggot.
External obstacles to the group include a scene where they are pulled over by a State Trooper in Tennessee. The scene makes us wonder if someone broke the rule the group was given at the beginning about not carrying illegal substances and is about to be arrested.
In spite of the obstacles that the group faces (which are frequently set up to mirror the obstacles and discrimination that African American Men face in our larger society) the movie ends on a note of hope. In the final scene, a prayer is read which had been written by a character who passed away just when the group had reached Washington. It includes the following quote from the Book of Job:
For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down...
... that it will sprout again...
... and that its tender shoots will not cease...
... though its roots may grow old in the earth...
... and its stump may die in the ground.
Yet at the scent of water...
... it will bud and bring forth branches like a plant.
Definitely would be worth a difficult bus ride to see Get on the Bus.
3 stars out of 4.
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