Do the Ride Thing

Spike Lee's Bus is back on track

Trying to decide whether the Million Man March was good or bad, heartening or depressing, can give you a headache. At the center of the ambiguity is Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, the march organizer. It's a stretch to believe that the anti-Semitism and xenophobia attributed to him in the past has all been, as he has claimed, the result of media distortion. But even if you leave Farrakhan out of the equation, the exclusion of women from the march opens yet another can of worms.

Being a white Protestant, nobody asked me for my opinion anyway (but we white Protestants are rarely shy when it comes to volunteering our opinions). All of the above is only to provide a context for a discussion of Spike Lee's new film Get on the Bus, a road movie about a group of black men traveling cross-country together from South Central L.A. to Washington, D.C., to attend the march. It's a warm, winning, extremely well-made film, with an ambling pace, emblematic, unsubtle characters, and some fairly broad humor. Yet the ambiguity of the background--the tension between the taint at the center of the march and the longings for decency and unity and peace that made the march possible--is what makes the film dramatic.

There's no real plot, just a premise that allows for long dialogues between various combinations of characters, along with a few travel vignettes. Except for a poignant, ironic twist at the end, Get on the Bus stays focused on character.

Among the travelers are the ebullient driver (Charles S. Dutton); an old-timer (Ossie Davis) who skipped the march on Washington in 1963 for fear of offending his white employers; a cocky young actor (Andre Braugher) who hopes and expects to be the next Denzel Washington; a biracial L.A. cop (Roger Guenveur Smith); a Spike-wanna-be film student (Hill Harper); a silent Nation of Islam member (Guy Margo); a clean-living young Moslem convert (Gabriel Casseus); a cynical, self-serving buppy businessman (Wendell Pierce); and a gay couple (Harry Lennix and Isaiah Washington) who must struggle against a second level of bigotry--one held by many of their fellow passengers, and by Farrakhan himself. And in spite of this, they still want to go, still feel the need to go.

This seems to be the point that Lee and his screenwriter, Reggie Rock Bythewood, are getting at. The pilgrimage has far less to do with Farrakhan or gender politics than with the search for an antidote to a deep soul-sickness that the men on the bus feel--that they're undervalued not only by society but by themselves and one another.

One of the film's early images is of two black men chained together--a teenage kid (DeAundre Bonds) handcuffed by court order to his father (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), as it turns out. In the course of the film, the young Moslem candidly admits (to the cop!) that in his gang days, he eliminated more rival gang kids than he could count on both hands. He doesn't use the word "murder" or even "kill"; he "smokes" his victims. It's as if, despite the guilt which led to his conversion, he doesn't see his crimes as full-fledged murders--as if his victims weren't fully human, or fully alive, or both.

Bythewood and Lee aren't blind to the concerns of society--black and white--about Farrakhan. There's a second driver (Richard Belzer), a Jew who halfway through the journey abandons the job in disgust over the destination, as well as the intrusive insults he gets from the riders. The black bus driver accepts his decision, an ambiguous gesture from the filmmakers suggesting that the objections by Jews may be fair enough.

Neither the filmmakers nor most of the characters seem like they'd give the Jewish driver much argument about Farrakhan's flaws; Farrakhan isn't central to why the guys on the bus are going to D.C. But is Belzer's character right--does Farrakhan poison everything he touches? I suspect the answer is yes. The only question is how lethal the dose is.

No matter how charming a movie about a bunch of young Germans traveling to a Hitler rally in Munich might be, you couldn't discuss it outside of the context of who they were going to see.

Farrakhan may not be Hitler, but the same problem exists for this film. Farrakhan's bigotries grow out of an undeniably real societal oppression. That doesn't make him one jot less wrong, but it does--slightly--increase the hope that healthier leadership may grow up alongside him before he can do much harm. In any case, he's evidently not going anywhere soon, so there's not much to do but hope for the best.

Get on the Bus wouldn't force one to struggle with this issue if it weren't so engaging. Lee's direction is superb. His past few films mostly have been assured, but slick, repetitive and self-referential. The low-budget verite style of Get on the Bus seems to have reinvigorated Lee--his work is straightforward and free of flash. It's also unexpectedly lovely to look at. The cinematography of Elliot Davis, blown up from Super-16, has a wonderful, grainy luminosity.

The actors jam beautifully. Braugher, who has always seemed a bit hammy and overrated to me, is excellent here, in the role of a ham. Dutton's expansive acting is always a pleasure, Byrd and Bonds avoid the maudlin in the father/son scenes, and Roger Guenveur Smith, so memorable as the stuttering Smiley in Do the Right Thing, approaches the very different role of the cop with originality and sharp intelligence.

The standout, though, is Ossie Davis, who manages to be endearing without excessive twinkling. His openness and eagerness for growth sum up the best of the movie's--and, one hopes, the march's--spirit.

Get on the Bus:
Directed by Spike Lee; with Ossie Davis, Charles S. Dutton, Andre Braugher, Roger Guenveur Smith, Isaiah Washington, Gabriel Casseus, Harry Lennix, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Albert Hall, Hill Harper, Richard Belzer, Dr. Hosea Brown III, Guy Margo and DeAundre Bonds.

Rated

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