Get on the Bus (1996)

reviewed by
James Berardinelli

                         Get On The Bus (1996)
                   A film review by James Berardinelli
                    Copyright 1996 James Berardinelli
RATING (0 TO 10): 7.0
Alternative Scale: *** out of ****
United States, 1996
U.S. Release Date: 10/16/96 (wide)
Running Length: 2:00
MPAA Classification: R (Profanity, mature themes)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Cast: Charles Dutton, Ossie Davis, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Andre Braugher, Richard Belzer, Gabriel Casseus, Roger Guenveur Smith, Isaiah Washington, Harry J. Lennix, Hill Harper Director: Spike Lee Producer: Bill Borden, Reuben Cannon, and Barry Rosenbush Screenplay: Reggie Rock Bythewood Cinematography: Elliot Davis Music: Terence Blanchard U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures

GET ON THE BUS is the first film since SPEED to spend this much time in the cramped interior of a bus. The budgets of the two movies, much like their intentions, couldn't be more different. The 1994 action blockbuster was a major Hollywood undertaking, with significant studio backing. GET ON THE BUS, Spike Lee's smallest-budget feature since his early days as a director, was financed exclusively by 15 wealthy, influential African-American men, including Danny Glover, Wesley Snipes, Will Smith, Robert Guillaume, San Antonio Spurs basketball player Charles D. Smith, and attorney Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. Each contributed $100,000 or $200,000 to the overall $2.4 million used to make the picture.

The Million Man March, which took place on October 16, 1995, was arguably the most important display of male black solidarity since the '60s. As depicted in GET ON THE BUS, it was about unity, self- discovery, and taking responsibility. Black women were divided in opinion about the March -- some thought it was a great idea, others found it to be a "sexist, exclusionary" activity. Many whites didn't understand the point of such a massive gathering, and reacted with mistrust and fear, especially when they realized that controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan was the organizer.

GET ON THE BUS doesn't attempt to tell the story of the Million Man March -- that would be a monumental, epic undertaking. Instead, it investigates the spirit and meaning of the March as seen through the eyes of a group of diverse men taking the long bus trip from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. for the event. Lee's primary objective is to reflect back and offer a uniquely personal perspective of that single day last October. This viewpoint, which ultimately transcends the movie's flaws, is one of the aspects that makes for a worthwhile two hours. Unfortunately, many of the bus riders are just variations of stock characters. Neither Lee nor screenwriter Reggie Rock Bythewood crafts more than one or two well-realized personalities. While it's true that many of GET ON THE BUS's men are sympathetic, that's more a function of good acting than of the uneven script.

The men who board the "Spotted Owl" bus in South Central LA are certainly not all cut from the same mold. There's Gary (Roger Guenveur Smith), a half-white cop who's insecure about his "blackness" and whose girlfriend is mad at him for making the trip. Evan (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) and his son, Junior (De'aundre Bonds), are shackled together by court order. "Dog", as Junior calls him, is trying to make up for years of absent parenting by taking his reluctant, delinquent offspring to this historic event. Two homosexual lovers, Kyle (Isaiah Washington) and Randall (Harry J. Lennix), are in the midst of a breakup. An up- and-coming actor, Flip (Andre Braugher), is waiting to hear whether he'll get the co-starring role in a new Denzel Washington movie. Also along for the ride are Xavier (Hill Harper), an aspiring film student; Jamal (Gabriel Casseus), a reformed gang-banger; and Jeremiah (Ossie Davis, in a standout performance), the aging voice of wisdom and experience. The trip has been organized by George (Charles Dutton), and the driver is a white Jew named Rick (Richard Belzer).

Needless to say, there isn't enough screen time to develop these stories more than fitfully. Some get better exposure than others -- most notably those of Gary, the light-skinned cop; Jeremiah, the quiet man with a poignant past; and the handcuffed father-and-son tandem. Conversely, the struggle of the homosexuals to attain acceptance is handled in a superficial manner. The battle lines between gay rights supporters and homophobes are clearly established on the bus, with each side mouthing the requisite slogans. Lee doesn't really offer anything new as far as the gay black man is concerned, and appears to have included this pair primarily as a means of illustrating diversity within the community.

The melodramatic ending, which includes a sermon on unity, is excessively manipulative. And there are several instances throughout when Lee uses contrived events to advance the plot (the bus runs off the road, a black Republican comes on board, a fight breaks out). Still, all things considered, GET ON THE BUS presents an involving, intimate portrait of a group of men gathered for a common purpose. Artificial plot devices don't divert our attention from the strong, heartfelt performances.

What is occasionally distracting, however, is Elliot Davis' camerawork, which includes frequent changes in film stock and lighting levels. Apparently, Lee thinks this is artistic, but it's also intrusive. This kind of film making technique is fine for experimental and art features, but, for a drama, its pulls the viewer away from the characters, momentarily creating an unwanted awareness of the process that's telling the story.

Some moments in GET ON THE BUS cut to the heart of what the Million Man March symbolized. One such occasion has the characters singing an improvised "Roll Call", introducing themselves to each other in song. Another is an intense confrontation between Gary and Jamal about street violence, a topic that has a deep, personal meaning for each of them. Scenes like these, ripe with genuine emotion, are the most compelling reason to take this trip with director Spike Lee and his talented cast.

- James Berardinelli e-mail: ReelViews web site:

"We go away from our parents in youth and then we gradually come back to them; and in that moment, we have grown up." -- Ingmar Bergman

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