Get On The Bus (1996)

D: Spike Lee
S: Ossie Davis, Charles S. Dutton, Gabriel Casseus

A group of black men on a journey from Los Angeles to Washington for the million man march compare and share experiences of life as an African-American. Included, among others, are a homosexual couple, a light-skinned police officer, a recent convert to Islam working with gang members, an elderly and ill man who lives alone, a young film maker making a documentary, a man handcuffed to his delinquent son and a no nonsense tour guide trying to ensure a smooth, orderly trip. Along the way their various stories begin to grow and inform one another, sometimes to the point of conflict.

This is a well written, well acted and very nicely directed film from Spike Lee, small in scale but expansive in its attempts to embrace and explore the diversity of (masculine) African-American culture. It should come as little surprise to hear this given Lee's track record, but the film's main focus of attention has been its production history. Just so you know, it was shot in three weeks, cost $2.4 million and was entirely financed by black men, including scriptwriter Reggie Rock Blythewood. It is somewhat limiting to discuss the mere money when it comes to motion pictures, but it is often as relevant as it is essential to the continued existence of the medium, hence the excitement which greeted this modest proposition in the era of $200 million blockbusters.

But the bottom line is that Lee has worked under severe budgetary constraints before (just not in a while), and responded brilliantly, surprising international festival audiences with She's Gotta Have It way back in 1986. Lee has come a long way as a personality in ten years (after Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, he is now an icon himself), but it is certainly arguable that his films have changed little.

Which is no bad thing. Apart from School Daze and Jungle Fever, he has consistently turned out interesting pictures (and even these former have their following). His most recent previous to this, Clockers, may have been a director for hire project inherited from producer Martin Scorsese, but was as thought-provoking a big budget picture as was made that year in Hollywood.

Get On The Bus is not a significant development in Lee's filmography, nor was it intended to be. It is rather an intensely personal vision of contemporary African-American masculinity, replete with questions of religious, sexual and even cultural sub divisions even though the characters are all nominally spiritually and physically unified on their bus journey to the million man march. It does not shy away from internal antagonism or criticisms of its characters' attitudes. Nor is it pointlessly negative and self-denegrating. It offers hope and despair in even doses and ends with suitable ambiguity. It unflinchingly subjects the differing personalities to a standard road movie dissection, and in Lee's careful hands the drama never becomes stilted or claustrophobic. Part of the credit is due to Blythewood's script, of course, and to the performances of the actors. Though it does eventually collapse into the obvious at the climax, it is certainly more honest and effective a film than Spielberg's Amistad. But for many, that will go without saying.

Of course the question remains just how much pleasure is to be derived from the film for a non-black audience, and to what degree are we required to feel like interlopers or voyeurs into a culture which is definitively not our own. The answer is personal to the viewer. Lee has never made any apologies for the particular focus of his work as an artist and as a leading figure in African-American culture. But to deny oneself the right to enjoy a well made film purely on the basis of race is to live in perpetual isolation from world cinema on the whole. You can't omit the question of your race as a viewer, no more than you can evade the question of your nationality when viewing films from another country. But that Lee is an African American makes him no less an American nor a film artist. This film works within the existing conventions of American independent film making and will also be familiar to viewers of contemporary European art house. You may not feel entirely welcome on this bus, but, though Lee may not thank me for saying it, your place is there if you choose it to be, regardless of the colour of your skin.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.