In Get on the Bus, director and material come together with perfect ease — one of those occasional confluences of subject and strengths that make a moviegoer go, ”Of course!” Of course Spike Lee throws all of his bravado, all his storytelling talents, and all his artistic chutzpah into a movie about last year’s Million Man March. Who better than America’s leading black filmmaker to spin the many knotty threads of that dramatic, emotional, provocative expression of male African- American unity into a vibrant skein? In that one event, organized by the controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, was telescoped just about every issue facing contemporary black men — and the women and children who live side by side with them. And in one small-budget labor of love, Lee sets out to duplicate in a film what he felt the march did for those who attended: let many discordant voices work toward a moment of harmony.
To do so, he and talented screenwriter Reggie Rock Bythewood (in his feature film debut) have devised a classic road-movie vehicle: Leaving from South Central Los Angeles, a busload of 15 black men is bound for the Washington, D.C., march. This is not your ”average” group, of course; regular passengers are not likely to individuate and coalesce so elegantly. There’s the wise elder (Ossie Davis), the former gang member-turned-Muslim (Gabriel Casseus), the young film student with the restless videocam (Hill Harper), the biracial cop (veteran Lee-ensemble player Roger Smith). In this encounter session on wheels, two gay men (Isaiah Washington and Harry Lennix) assert themselves in the face of homophobia from a mouthy actor (Homicide‘s Andre Braugher, a powerhouse); a resentful son (DeAundre Bonds) and a once-negligent father (Thomas Jefferson Byrd, another Lee regular), literally shackled together as the young man works off a misdemeanor conviction, strengthen their bonds. A hardworking, levelheaded bus driver (Roc’s Charles Dutton) keeps the men moving forward. A brief interlude with a white driver at the wheel (Homicide‘s acerbic Richard Belzer, smartly cast) gives vent to Jewish concerns about Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic declamations.
The men are too good to be true. (Is a homophobe likely to be enlightened by a few articulate speeches from gay strangers?) And yet — unexpected goodness is exactly Lee’s intent. They laugh, argue, relax, and cry. Sometimes they break into song, and Ossie Davis bangs a drum. Sometimes the film stock changes — the moviemaker’s kinetic signature — and the camera work shifts from documentary mode to art-house experimental, from ”found” shots to composed vignettes. Improvisation mixes with staged, scripted scenes.
In recent work, Lee has let his cool-guy guard down considerably to let us in on his passion (Malcolm X), his despair (Clockers), and even his sentimental streak (Crooklyn, his tenderest film). Get On the Bus takes him to a new level of artistic maturity. If at times this memento of an important event veers toward the hyperbolic (does one march really signify that a million African-American men have thrown off the chains forged in slavery, as the opening and closing sequences suggest?), it is, nevertheless, a work of refined intensity. The ”Can’t we all just get along?” pleading of Clockers has given way to the optimism of the psalm about how good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in harmony. And a happy Spike Lee, it turns out, is an inspired one. B+