Get on the Bus
directed by Spike Lee
(Columbia Pictures, 1996)

There were 8 million stories in The Naked City. Spike Lee had considerably fewer to choose from in Get on the Bus, his 1996 take on the 1995 Million Man March. Fortunately, he chose to whittle the cast down a bit -- in the end, Lee and his camera followed only 20 black men who rode a scenicruiser nearly 3,000 back-breaking miles in six tense days, from southcentral Los Angeles to the Lincoln Memorial. That meant, of course, Lee could zoom in for closeups on each of the characters and show them interacting with their peers -- and others -- both in and out of crisis.

Sound a bit like Airport on wheels? It could be. Lee even provides the obligatory couple whose relationship is on the rocks. Only this time they're both men. The critical difference is that Lee's fellow travelers are men with something more than personal agendas. They have a common political and social agenda, no matter how much they might clash as individuals.

They range from a tough-guy teen (DeAundre Bonds) who's been shackled to his deadbeat dad (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) by court order to a biracial cop (Roger Guenveur Smith) and a film student (Hill Harper) with an uncanny resemblance to young Spike Lee who's shooting the trip, cinema verite style, of course, for a class project. There's even a former gang member turned Muslim (Gabriel Casseus) and a downsized executive (Ossie Davis), whose last hope is to deliver a prayer to the mall. In true Airport style, the prayer makes it, even though the executive doesn't.

Plotwise, we have the usual crisis in the cockpit, or, in this case, an unusual crisis in the cockpit, when the black driver who started the trip (Albert Hall) has to bow out -- and is replaced by Richard Belzer, the film's token white guy, who can't take the heat and bows out as well.

Fortunately, as all Airport fans know, there's always a reserve pilot waiting in the wings, or in this case, wheelwells. But for all his cinematic cliches, Lee's band of travelers can't help but move us, if only because Lee can't stop asking provocative questions: What is the role of gay men in the black community? Where do biracial people fit in? How can homophobes fight for racial justice? How about anti-semites? Lee's genius here is to make a convincing case for African America as a kind of multicultural community.

For all the talk about common roots, the tree's branches have spread far and wide, and when the travelers get past the generalities, it's hard for them to find common ties. Moreover, their willingness to confront one another with these issues -- indeed, their obsession for confrontation -- provides the dramatic tension that drives Get on the Bus beyond the confines of open-ended discussion toward a free-wheeling dramatic debate. There are a million questions in Get on the Bus, and very few answers. Kind of like life. Verite, without the cinema.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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