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GET ON THE BUS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Charles S. Dutton, Ossie Davis, Andre Braugher, Albert Hall, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Harry Lennix, Roger Smith, Gabriel Cassius
Director:  Spike Lee
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.0, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic, Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  Director’s Commentary, Talent Files
Length:  121 Minutes
Release Date:  January 30, 2001

Film ****

Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus is a deceptively simple film, with a simple premise and simple, straightforward story style, but those that would dismiss it as ‘simple’ haven’t looked closely enough.  Nothing about the picture is simple, from the dubious work of filming most of a two hour movie within the confines of a moving bus without feeling claustrophobic or repetitive, or the characters, who, on a cross country bus ride to the Million Man March end up revealing much about themselves, and learning more about themselves and each other than they might have ever expected.  And like another Lee masterpiece, Malcolm X, it deals with the reality of the African American experience, but in a way that doesn’t exclude or alienate any white viewers.  People of all ethnic backgrounds are likely to be entertained, moved, and given the opportunity to think by watching this film.

An old friend of mine (and fellow Spike Lee enthusiast) once described the film as owing something to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.  Having just watched the movie for the first time myself, I tend to both like and agree with that analogy.  A troupe of traveling strangers thrown together for a long distance with nothing much to do will eventually start to spill their stories, only Lee and screenwriter Reggie Rock Bythewood come up with scenarios whereby the stories ease out into the open in natural ways, rather than a straight collection of narratives.

Beginning in South Central Los Angeles, a bus bearing the name “Spotted Owl” collects a varied group of black male passengers who are all going to the Million Man March in Washington, D.C.  It doesn’t take long for some realistic ironies to surface:  though the March was meant to be in the spirit of unity and brotherhood, some small prejudices begin to surface early on in the trip.  There is a gay couple on the bus, for one, which make some openly uncomfortable.  An elderly loner, Jeremiah (Davis), speaks with the wisdom of having given many things in life careful consideration:  “The Bible says it’s an abomination,” he admits, “but I can’t help thinking…what if my own son had been born that way?”  If there was ever a better-phrased statement than that to combat narrow minded thinking, I have yet to hear it.

Another victim of prejudice is Gary (Smith), a fair-skinned black man.  Others ask invasive questions about his heritage, and it doesn’t seem good enough that he adamantly states, “I consider myself black.”  Later, we learn he is a policeman who followed in his father’s footsteps, even though his father was killed in the line of duty.  “Yes,” he later admits, “it was a brother that killed my father.”

Flip (Braugher) is most often the antagonist.  An up-and-coming actor, he seems to have been raised for a natural distrust for those different from him, though ironically, most of this negative energy is directed at his fellow bus passengers, and NOT against people of other races.

The bus drivers are Craig (Hall) and George (Dutton), both good natured, jovial men looking forward to the March.  An interesting twist occurs when the bus breaks down:  Craig is then forced to stay behind, and a new bus with a new driver begins the trip anew.  The new driver is Rick (Belzer), a white Jewish man who feels uncomfortable about the troupe’s destination.

Some of the best dialogue in the film occurs with Rick.  Many of the passengers aren’t pleased at the prospect of showing up at the March with a white man behind the wheel.  Rick protests he has no prejudices against his passengers, and defends himself and his family as civil rights supporters.  He has more in common with the travelers than either side would care to admit.  “We didn’t ask for slavery,” one of the men pipes up.  “We didn’t ask for the Holocaust,” Rick replies.  He later quits the ride, with an apology to George:  he cannot, in good conscious, continue on to a destination where Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam and a man often accused of anti-Semitism, is going to preside.  “I wouldn’t ask YOU to drive a bus to a Klan rally,” he points out, as he says his goodbyes.

Other passengers include a father (Byrd), who, because of a court order, has his sometime juvenile delinquent son shackled to him.  These characters were based on an actual news article Lee read, where a judge passed just such a sentence on a young man.  Needless to say, many of the other riders are not thrilled at the idea of a young black man bound by a chain on the bus with them.  Despite the legal issue involved, the chain and cuff is an unmistakable symbol (which also, in this film, figures prominently in the opening credits and again at the end). 

There is a young Muslim man (Casseus), who seems to radiate the kind of self respect and values that the March is supposed to be about…but even he has a story about how he got to that point in his life that will surprise both the viewers and the other passengers.  And, as mentioned, there is Jeremiah, who offers the most inspiring words for both the start and end of the journey.  His age and his story both make him indicative of the African American experience before and during the Civil Rights movement, and it is a rich, valuable tale for all who watch the film to pay heed to.

This is by far one of the best ensemble movies I’ve ever seen, easily bringing to mind other such classics as Twelve Angry Men.  The veteran actors like Davis, Dutton and Hall don’t command any more screen time than their younger counterparts.  The disciplined, unselfish cast, combined with Bythewood’s script and Lee’s direction, make this a well balanced and very smoothly flowing movie.  There are moments of joy, as the passengers all sing along to roll call, and there are moments of striking sadness, which I’ll leave for you to discover.

The best aspect of the film, however, is that the characters learn on their journey some of the same lessons we learn from watching it.  For example, in a stop in Knoxville, we (and they) are expecting some severely racist treatment from the southern white men they encounter while resting.  It doesn’t happen.  What DOES happen, however, is that they pick up another black passenger, who turns out to be a devout Republican who mocks and verbally thwarts every ideal behind the very March he’s en route to.  He throws the ‘n’ word around so callously, that one of the passengers finally feels compelled to ask him:  when he uses that word, is it including himself to?  Or just everybody else around him?

Even the woman’s voice is heard, when the bus makes a stop, and a couple of pretty young black women scold the men for their support of the March, which they view as sexist and exclusionary.  The men protest that part of the reason they’re going to the March is to learn to become better men, better husbands, better fathers and sons, which is all well and good, but somehow, it sounds a little different when you make that claim amongst members of your fellow sex.  It becomes a bit more awkward and contrived sounding when they say it to the women.

As mentioned, the film is a technical marvel, and far from being as simple as it looks.  The open windows give the picture an honest road-feel, as we aren’t merely observing those on the bus, but in fact, traveling along with them.  We aren’t there to watch the journey, but to take part in it.  Lee accomplished this by using super 16 cameras instead of standard 35 mm ones, which made for greater maneuverability in tight spaces.  He constantly finds ways to show us the same interior over and over without the picture becoming predictable in look or overly familiar.  Plus, he finds various ways and opportunities to combine his characters for various scenarios, so that pairings and groupings of people always seem fresh to us.

Get on the Bus is a marvelous film, rich in story and character, entertaining in its presentation, and beautifully thought-provoking.  Without ever venturing into preaching or lecturing, the journey of these men becomes as much a learning experience for us, as careful partakers in the trip, as it is for them.  It is truly a masterpiece on many levels.

Video ***

Given the lack of 35 mm film, the picture and anamorphic transfer are still quite good.  Lee deliberately uses strong tints at certain points, like hot yellows for desert scenes or deep blues for emotional and reflective ones, but all of these exaggerated schemes render well.  There is a bit more grain inherent in darker scenes than I normally like, but that’s largely because of the high contrast film stock employed.  Images are generally very sharp and crisp, softened deliberately from time to time to serve an intended overall look.  Despite the usual practice by Columbia Tri Star of offering widescreen on one side and standard on the other, thus denying a two hour film the benefit of dual layering, I noticed nothing in the presentation that I would attribute to compression or digital manipulation.  Overall, a very worthy effort.

Audio ***

The box claims a 5.0 mix, meaning no lower frequency signal, but my player, which usually makes such a distinction, indicated it recognized a .1 channel.  No matter.  Most of the film is dialogue oriented, with the main audio action taking place nicely on the front stage.  The left, right and center are utilized with good balance and mix, with only a few effects (like the sound of the bus motor) left for the rear stage.  What the film does for its soundtrack, it does nicely, and this DVD renders those intentions with no complaints.

Features **1/2

The disc contains a commentary track by Spike Lee, which is a fairly informative and entertaining listen, despite a few gaps here and there.  There are also some talent files, and some printed production notes in the DVD insert.

Summary:

Get on the Bus is a film no lover of a good movie or a good story should miss.  With a first rate ensemble cast, intelligent screenplay and terrific sense of direction, it’s an absolutely wonderful picture in which a group of men thoroughly explore their hearts, minds and souls while traveling together from one end of the country to the other.