BY MAKING A film about the Million Man March that's more inclusive than the event itself, is Spike Lee finessing history or doing the right thing? Depends on who you ask, of course. During the week since it opened, I've heard Get on the Bus critiqued--by people who haven't seen it--for being partially funded by Johnnie Cochran, for being about the March, and even for being a Spike Lee film, as though there were only one kind. Actually, and despite the fact that he still gets typed as a mere provocateur, Lee's output since Malcolm X has become increasingly ambitious and diverse, and, in turn, increasingly uncommercial.
For this historical project set just one year ago, the hardest working man in the film business experiments with directing a script he didn't write, and with securing a low budget through private investment from 15 African-American men. Appropriately, this movie about the desire for community is his most collaborative joint ever. At the same time, Bus also finds the auteur playing to his own greatest strengths--among them a knack for finessing history and doing the right thing.
Returning more impartially to the stoop-sittin', dialogue-driven aesthetic of his early work, the director presents two full hours of distinctly black debate on such topics such as biracial identity, homosexuality, religious faith, marital infidelity, affirmative action, unity vs. solidarity, gang violence, conspiracy theories, and big booties; the occasion is a three-day bus ride from South Central L.A. to the march in Washington, D.C. Favoring a multiplicity of voices (rather than, per usual, his own), Lee--working with the brilliant first-time screenwriter, Reggie Rock Bythewood--grants screen time to a gay couple, a white Jewish man with a gripe against Louis Farrakhan, and even a few skeptical sisters who deem the march "sexist and exclusionary." In fact, such is the film's commitment to universal uplift that Farrakhan, albeit referred to as "the only free black man in America," is never shown.
One could argue that leaving Farrakhan out of the mix is an act of evasion. But in another sense, Lee's point is that what the march could inspire is more important than the actual event; and that its participants count for more than its sponsor. Still, the film does follow suit with the minister's stated agenda by examining the perceived crisis of black fatherhood. Among the passengers are a feuding father and son (Thomas Jefferson Byrd and DeAundre Bonds); a South Central cop (Roger Guenveur Smith) still dealing with the death of his policeman father; and Jeremiah (Ossie Davis), a wise old codger who, having ignored both his family and the march in 1963, sees this trip as an opportunity to redeem himself. The group's chief father figure is George (Charles S. Dutton), the tour leader who aptly chooses James Brown's "Papa Don't Take No Mess" as the lead-off tune.
In creating a broad cross-section of black male life, Bus occasionally stretches plausibility: There's a former gangbanger turned celibate Muslim social worker (Gabriel Casseus), and a gay Republican with dreadlocks (Isaiah Washington) who was wounded in the Gulf War by the deliberate "friendly fire" of some phobic fellow Marines. Nevertheless, these contrivances enable some intense debates, and it doesn't hurt that the ensemble acting is equally fierce. Several of the characters remain believably resistant to change: Flip (Andre Braugher) is a selfish, gay-bashing actor; and Wendell (Wendell Pierce) is an obnoxious buppie conservative who gets thrown off the bus for his savage comments about Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson. Then there's Rick (Richard Belzer), a Jewish bus driver who purports to be "color blind" before claiming O.J.'s guilt as justification for his beef with black people. This character has been widely read as further evidence of the director's own racism; but from where I sit, Lee gives the man a legitimate reason for choosing to quit the trip and the film, deciding that supporters of an anti-Semite can find their own way to the march.
In many ways, Lee seems to be trading his strenuous ambiguity for a documentarian's distance; where Do the Right Thing flaunted the question of whether the garbage can-throwing Mookie was a stand-in for the filmmaker, Bus charts more clearly neutral territory. That many of his characters don't make it to the march is Lee's way of saying that this history is still being written--or, as Dutton's George puts it, that "the real march hasn't even started yet." Likewise, the simultaneous intimacy and openness of Get on the Bus suggests that Lee's own career may itself be just beginning. CP