Well, I’m skipping ahead in the Spike Lee chronology I’ve been ever-so-slowly crawling my way through, but I thought a movie about a march on Washington would be a good thing to revisit on the Martin Luther King Day starting the week that, as far as we know, will end with the inauguration of the first American president to be 2 degrees of separation from Steven Seagal (they have a mutual friend, a Russian guy named Vladimir something) and subsequent protest march.
GET ON THE BUS is a road trip movie, but it could almost be a play, because the vast majority of it is about conversations taking place inside a charter bus. Around fifteen African American men, most of them meeting for the first time, are headed from a church parking lot in South Central Los Angeles to the Million Man March in Washington DC. If you’re too young to remember, that was the October 16, 1995 gathering of black men organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
Though it tried to encourage spirituality, it was not a strictly Muslim event – other speakers included Reverend Benjamin Chavis, Martin Luther King III, Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Reverend James Bevel (the guy that Common played in SELMA) and Reverend Jeremiah Wright (the guy that right wingers were apoplectic about Obama knowing because they said the preacher was anti-American. This was before they did a complete 180-degree belief switcheroo to fall in line behind Trump’s “America Fucking Sucks Now” campaign theme.)
But I get the impression that for many people it wasn’t as much about what it said in the program or the content of the 10 hours of speeches on the National Mall as it was about the act of taking time out of their lives to travel and come together in unity and remind the world that they exist. The characters in this movie have many different beliefs and backgrounds, and some are only vaguely able to articulate why the march is important to them. For example Gary (Roger Guenveur Smith, PANTHER, FIGHTING) says, “I guess if the brothers are getting together, talking about things, working things out, I want to be there.” (Then he goes for a high five, but is left hanging.)
By the way, the name of the bus is The Spotted Owl, and in case you’re too young to know that reference, the spotted owl is a threatened species and at the time there was alot of resentment toward it by people who thought logging was more important than protecting their lives. It’s kinda funny that what at the time was maybe a little heavy-handed symbolism I now find myself assuming I have to explain to people.
Anyway, this is a big ensemble of characters coming together with a common goal, discussing issues, sometimes having conflicts, but building friendships. You can imagine that afterwards some of them became life long friends, or if not they probly remember the people on that trip as if they knew them more than 6 days.
Some of it could certainly be accused of being contrived or corny, but for me it absolutely works. It doesn’t hurt that it has two of the great inspirational orators of moviedom, Ossie Davis and Charles S. Dutton, giving rousing prayers, speeches and eulogies.
Dutton (SURVIVING THE GAME, MENACE II SOCIETY) plays George, the organizer, main driver and pep-talker. Davis (BUBBA HO-TEP) plays Jeremiah, who sort of acts as the wise grandpa to everyone, especially excited UCLA film student X (Hill Harper, PUMPKINHEAD II: BLOOD WINGS), whose documentary for school is a good excuse for Lee to switch to video footage and interview his characters.
Flip (Andre Braugher, STRIKING DISTANCE, FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER) is the only real asshole on the bus. He’s an actor who may or may not have just gotten his big break in a Denzel Washington movie, depending on whether or not you believe his stories. (A Denzel movie casting in October of 1995 would probly have been THE PREACHER’S WIFE, I guess?) Flip struts in late wearing sunglasses and loudly interrupts Jeremiah’s prayer. From that point on he calls attention to himself and sucks all the positive energy out of the bus as much as possible.
Primary targets of Flip’s dickishness:
* Kyle (Isaiah Washington, EXIT WOUNDS, WILD THINGS 2) and Randall (Harry Lennix, THE MATRIX RELOADED) because he finds out they’re gay. While the movie and some of the characters definitely support Kyle and Randall, Flip and others unleash a level of homophobic assholishness toward them that would seem shocking in a new movie.
* Gary, who he passive-aggressively makes feel self conscious about having a white mother and growing up in a white neighborhood.
But Gary himself has a hostility toward Jamal (Gabriel Casseus), the young righteous Muslim, when he finds out he used to be a gangbanger. Gary reveals that he’s LAPD, which causes much tension because of the negative experiences many of these men have had with police. In the movie’s most uncomfortable moment Gary and Jamal seem to have found common ground and then Gary vows to arrest Jamal as soon as they get home.
The first characters we actually meet are Evan (Thomas Jefferson Byrd, SET IT OFF) and his son Evan Jr. (De’Aundre Bonds, TALES FROM THE HOOD), who prefers to be called Smoove. Smoove was recently caught stealing money from a grocery store cash register and as part of his sentencing must be shackled to his father for 72 hours. This leads to judgment from the other passengers, many allusions to slavery and one mention of THE DEFIANT ONES. I think Bonds is particularly great in this, his face usually twisted in a tight ball of resentment toward everyone and everything. He feels his father was never there for him and now is there too much, since he has to get unlocked just to take a piss.
Although Smoove is a representation of struggling black youth of South Central in the mid ’90s, the withering look he gives his dad for dancing to James Brown is universal to all teens embarrassed by their parents.
Steve White gets a wisecracking role similar to what he did in DO THE RIGHT THING and MO’ BETTER BLUES, interjecting humor here and there but not really being important to the plot. Weirdly, Bernie Mac (four years before being the main attraction in Lee’s ORIGINAL KINGS OF COMEDY) is there the whole time and barely gets any dialogue. And there are three people on the bus who actually don’t talk at all, they’re just there as seat-fillers I guess.
I always liked the perpetually unamused Muslim-Ben-Stein looking dude conscientiously objecting from grooving on the middle left here:
This was joint #10 for Lee, and being self-financed and lower budget than previous films it dived head first into a looser, more playful style he started messing around with in CLOCKERS, I think. Shot in 18 days, there’s no room for the show-offy camera moves and colorful sets he was previously known for. He uses handheld cameras and switches from 35 mm to grainy 16, Super 8 and video. At his most visually aggressive he goes for this weird blown out yellow look:
which seemed very new and experimental at the time. All this works well for a movie that is basically very simple, mostly just people talking on the bus or on the side of the road after they crash into a ditch and before they push it out with George yelling “Which tribe do you belong to? Shaka Zulu’s, or Clarence Thomas’s?”
They don’t seem to stop to sleep. Sometimes they stop to eat. At one point they are forced to stop at a hospital and choose between abandoning their hospitalized friend or possibly missing the big event they’ve come all this way for. Watching it this time I thought, “Oh shit! That happens in MAGIC MIKE XXL too!”
Controversies about the march come up before they even, you know, get on the bus. Gary’s girlfriend Shelly (Kristen Wilson, WHO’S THE MAN?, TYSON) drops him off at the church, but objects that it’s “sexist and exclusionary” to leave women out of it. He says something about they have to learn to be better fathers, husbands and sons. I mean, there’s nothing technically wrong with that, but it’s hard to imagine someone who really respects and values women saying it. Come to think of it, if that’s the real goal then mothers, wives and daughters ought to have a hell of alot more insights into it than the men, and should’ve been the first people invited.
The topic comes up again when Gary and Flip hit on two women (Paula Jai Parker and Gina Ravera) at a rest stop. They’re the most prominent female characters and they’re only in this one scene. Mostly this functions as a men’s retreat on film. But that’s actually very effective because as natural as it feels, off the top of my head I can’t think of too many other movies with a primarily black male cast that aren’t about gangs or something.
There are a few white men in the movie. The bus has two major stops in Tennessee. In Memphis they stop at a bar where some locals (Gary Lowery and Bob Orwig) ask them about Farrakhan. Smoove is really funny in this scene – he’s been complaining about going to the march against his will, but all the sudden he starts bragging about it when there are some white people he thinks will be freaked out by it.
Instead, everybody gets along adorably.
This scene seems funnier to me after actually being to Memphis. The implication that these guys are surprised to see so many black people doesn’t really jibe with the demographics there. But I checked and these seem to be Tennessee-based actors, so maybe it really is filmed there.
The other encounter is much less positive: state troopers pull them over in Knoxville and search the bus with drug sniffing dogs. Nothing happens, but it’s a humiliating reminder that for many people the decades between today and Jim Crow can melt away in an instant.
(I don’t remember ever noticing that the head trooper is an uncredited Rowdy Randy Quaid.)
The most important white character is Rick (Richard Belzer, SCARFACE), a substitute bus driver who is not happy to have this gig. As a Jew he’s not down with Farrakhan, which makes some of the passengers think he’s racist. He tries to run down his civil rights bonafides, which just makes him look worse until George personally vouches for his character. They have strong, opposing view points that they’re not able to square with each other, but they remain friends who respect each other.
Farrakhan was and is a controversial figure who is regularly accused of anti-Semitic, anti-gay and anti-white views. And I would add sexist. So the march’s biggest liability in most peoples’ eyes was the guy who put it together in the first place. Evan makes it clear to the guys in Memphis that he considers Farrakhan a black leader, not “the new black leader, the new Martin Luther King” like they’d assumed. And when X asks about Farrakhan’s views on gays, Randall says charitably, “He called for a day of atonement. Perhaps the minister will atone for his homophobia.” So most of these guys don’t see themselves as followers of Farrakhan. I think they see themselves participating in a thing that he happens to be at. It’s a snowball that has become much bigger than the guy who started rolling it.
But I might be making this movie sound more strident than it is. Yeah, they talk about a bunch of issues from the O.J. Simpson trial to whether or not kids should be spanked. But it’s a fun movie, a hanging out talking with the guys movie. They argue but they form a sort of brotherhood over the course of the trip. They are a diverse group but ultimately they can get along – except for this asshole Republican guy played by Wendell Pierce who they pick up along the way. He insults everybody and stinks up the bus with cigar smoke and after he admits he’s just going to make connections for selling cars they literally throw him off.
Music is very important to the movie. The songs often seem to intentionally work in opposition to the images: the opening credits alternate between shackled and handcuffed black bodies under an original ballad written by Babyface and sung by Michael Jackson (not included on the soundtrack!?). A fight occurs with Stevie Wonder covering “Redemption Song” in the background. You don’t hear much of them, but there are bits of original songs by Guru, Doug E. Fresh, A Tribe Called Quest and D’Angelo. Curtis Mayfield is more prominently featured – “People Get Ready” (which Dr. King named the unofficial anthem of his movement), a live version of “Move On Up,” and his lesser known “New World Order.” (That’s the title track of his ’96 post-paralysis final album.)
The characters bond not only through listening to music, but also creating it. In two different scenes Gary plays guitar while they all improvise blues songs about their situation. Jeremiah plays an African timbe drum while he tells a story about Africa; he also teaches X how to play it, the oldest man on the bus passing something on to the youngest. In my favorite scene of the movie they do a “roll call” chant where they take turns introducing themselves in rhyme:
If you’ve never seen the movie but the scene seems strangely familiar, it might be because you watched The Office:
I know it’s comedy but I think it’s fair to say that white people are not as good at that.
Music is a key component of the trip from the moment they pull out, enthusiastically singing along to James Brown’s “Papa Don’t Take No Mess.” It’s one of the most laid back funky beats of all time and also it’s a song glorifying his dad beating him up. But the lyrics really speak to a bunch of dudes going to a thing to talk about how to be a better bunch of dudes:
“Papa is the man / who can understand / How a man’s gotta do / Whatever he can / (hit me!)”
GET ON THE BUS came out 20 years ago last year, on the one year anniversary of the march, made very quickly after being inspired by a news story about a similar charter bus to the march. Lee works in a little bit of news footage from the actual event, and there’s one scene that seems like he actually got out there to film in the gridlock of people driving to the march.
The way the camera moves covering people marching with signs reminds me of Lee’s own video for “Fight the Power,” which itself was inspired by MLK’s March On Washington.
Since the movie, Ossie Davis, Bernie Mac, Maya Angelou (seen in footage from her actual speech), Curtis Mayfield, Michael Jackson, Guru and Phife Dawg have all passed away. Isaiah Washington – though he positively portrays a gay man in the movie – was fired from Grey’s Anatomy for a homophobic outburst on set. From 2001-2011 De’Aundre Bonds (Smoove) did time for manslaughter (afterwards he was in GANGSTER SQUAD and DOPE). Gabriel Casseus (Jamal) wrote the Paul Walker/Hayden Christensen movie TAKERS. Writer Reggie Rock Bythewood went on to direct BIKER BOYZ and write NOTORIOUS. And most importantly, Roger Guenveur Smith (Gary) co-starred with Steven Seagal in MERCENARY FOR JUSTICE, making him 3 degrees from Trump, and the most likely to be able to trick him into watching it to get an image of black men outside of his apocalyptic vision of burning, crime-ridden “inner cities” he imagines while surveying the land from his golden tower.
Today I’d guess that number of black men all gathering in one place would still scare the shit out of certain people, and I’m sorry but I have to say especially one particular side of the political spectrum in this country. But it seems to me this whole event was themed around very conservative, Promise Keepers type principles. According to the Nation of Islam websight, “more than a million Black men gathered in Washington, D.C. to declare their right to justice, to atone for their failure as men and to accept responsibility as the family head.” Your blowhard conservatives like your Bill O’Reillies and your Sean Hannities would likely quote the much lower National Parks Service crowd estimates and miss that Farrakhan was pushing the same kind of “Where are the fathers?/pull your pants up” respectability politics that they like to throw in black America’s face every chance they get. They hate Farrakhan so much they might not realize how much they agree with him.
But now they should definitely be able to relate to people going to the march without liking Farrakhan. They have plenty of fresh experience in following a movement while trying to overlook reprehensible things the leader has said and done.
My overall impression of Farrakhan is not very positive, but I’m impressed by the march he made happen, and when they get to that crowd footage at the end it’s incredible to behold. It even makes you kind of appreciate the idea of only inviting men, because it’s such a monolithic sight. (And makes me worry my dumb ass will get in the way at the upcoming women’s march. They said men could come too though! I gotta be there to support them if they want me to.)
Again, from NOI.org: “The world did not see thieves, criminals and savages as usually portrayed through mainstream music, movies and other forms of media; on that day, the world saw a vastly different picture of the Black man in America. The world saw Black men demonstrating the willingness to shoulder the responsibility of improving themselves and the community. There was neither one fight nor one arrest that day. There was no smoking or drinking. The Washington Mall, where the March was held, was left as clean as it was found.”
Well, there’s one fight in GET ON THE BUS. And they stop for a beer in Memphis. And there are two criminals, but they are not savages, they are complicated people who we get to know. There aren’t many movies like this, and though I wouldn’t rank it up there with DO THE RIGHT THING as Spike Lee’s best, it’s one I’ve watched many times over the years and always enjoyed.
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.