Film Reviews

Brothers on the Bus

Spike Lee bounces back from the aimless doodling of Girl 6 with Get on the Bus, a labor of love that has the vigor and urgency of something made in a single burst of creative energy. The movie was filmed in three weeks on a minuscule budget of $2.4 million, all of it raised by 15 prominent African-Americans. Danny Glover, Wesley Snipes and Will Smith are among those on the honor roll in the closing credits. Johnnie Cochran Jr. also appears on the list. Considering the number of O.J. jokes in the film, it seems that Lee didn't allow his investors to read the script before filming began.

If you've heard that this is the story of what happens to a busload of black men on their way to last year's Million Man March in Washington, D.C., you may be expecting something quite different from the movie Lee has made. We see very little of the actual march, and almost nothing of its controversial organizer, the Reverend Louis Farrakhan. (Mind you, we hear a great deal about Farrakhan -- more about that later -- but he makes only a brief, almost subliminal on-camera appearance.) For the most part, Get on the Bus is an old-fashioned ensemble drama about characters who are thrown together in a common pursuit, and kept together long enough to reveal much about themselves. The cross section of passengers is as diverse and emblematic as a regiment in a '40s war movie. Just about the only thing these guys have in common is a shared desire to take part in a historic event that may foster pride in African-American males.

Television writer and producer Reggie Rock Bythewood (New York Undercover), another of the film's investors, makes his debut as a feature screenwriter with Get on the Bus. There is an annoying obviousness to some of his dialogue and dramatic symbolism, indicating that he may have labored too long in the vineyard of network TV. But Bythewood also has a talent that's common to TV veterans, an ability to render vivid and complete characters with maximum speed and minimum exposition. To be sure, not every passenger on the bus emerges as a three-dimensional individual. Indeed, at least one character, a well-dressed young man with the haircut and bow tie of a Farrakhan disciple, has no dialogue whatsoever, and winds up serving as a kind of running sight gag. Elsewhere on the bus, however, there are more interesting people to be found. And, better still, Lee has found excellent actors to play most of them.

Andre Braugher, the mesmerizingly intense star of TV's Homicide: Life on the Street, is particularly impressive as Flip, an out-of-work actor whose smart-mouthed belligerence frequently antagonizes the folks seated around him. Flip is quick to mock two estranged gay lovers (Harry Lennix and Isaiah Washington) who are making the trip to Washington, D.C., and ever quicker to question the "blackness" of a light-skinned cop (Roger Guenveur Smith) who is the product of a racially mixed marriage. It is much to the credit of Lee and Bythewood that they refuse to provide a scene that gives a simplistic explanation for Flip's free-floating rage. Midway through the film, however, there is a throwaway reference to Flip's most memorable acting credit. Two women recognize him for playing a janitor on an episode of some television series. And even then, Flip has to prod their memory before they make the connection.

Charles S. Dutton gives a robust and engaging performance as George, the bus driver who serves as master of ceremonies and, occasionally, smooth-talking peacemaker. Interestingly enough, George is the character who speaks most glowingly of Farrakhan. (At one point, he refers to the minister as "the only free black man in America.") Throughout the movie, however, there are signs that Lee and Bythewood take a much more ambivalent view of the man who organized the Million Man March. At one point, a white backup driver named Rick (played by Richard Belzer, another Homicide regular) bails out of the trip. Rick is Jewish, and he finds it impossible to be part of an event led by a minister he considers to be a virulent anti-Semite. George defends Farrakhan against Rick's damning criticism, but not quite as forcefully as you would expect him to. It might be that George is reluctant to argue too heatedly with a friend and co-worker. It might also be that George discerns a glimmer of justification for Rick's accusations, and that makes George profoundly uneasy. The two men agree to disagree, and part company -- not with angry words, but with a tentative handshake.

On two other occasions, women complain about Farrakhan's decision to make the march a guys-only affair. "It's not about excluding sisters," the light-skinned cop insists. "It's about gaining your respect and trying to keep it." Maybe so, but the women do not appear to be entirely convinced.

And yet, for all that, Lee and Bythewood don't permit disputes about Farrakhan's philosophy to diminish the importance of Farrakhan's accomplishment. Get on the Bus is a celebration of the Million Man March as a moral and spiritual reawakening, a grand gesture designed to encourage responsibility, reconciliation and self-reliance. In addition to those already mentioned, the characters who experience personal epiphanies during the bus trip include Jamal (Gabriel Casseus), a devout Muslim who's haunted by his past as a murderous gangbanger; Xavier (Hill Harper), a student filmmaker who is a bit too obviously a stand-in for Spike Lee himself; and Jeremiah (Ossie Davis), an elderly passenger who missed Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on Washington and is determined not to make the same mistake twice. Also onboard: Evan Thomas (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), a long-absent father who is literally shackled to his defiant teenage son (DeAundre Bonds) as the result of a court order following the boy's misdemeanor conviction. Not surprisingly, the other passengers question the appropriateness of a having a young black man chained like a slave during the Million Man March.

Whenever the dialogue threatens to degenerate into speechifying, Lee usually manages to stir things up with a visual flourish or two. Get on the Bus alternates between hard-edged, in-your-face super-16 cinematography and jittery videotape-to-film transfers. It's a tricky mix that Lee pulls off with his customary skill and bravado. This isn't one of Lee's best films, but it may be the most heartfelt. And his enthusiasm shines through in every frame.

-- Joe Leydon

Get on the Bus.
Directed by Spike Lee. With Richard Belzer, Andre Bragher, Ossie Davis, Charles S. Dutton, Harry Lennix, Wendell Pierce and Isaiah Washington.

Rated R.
122 minutes.

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Joe Leydon