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September 28, 2016

Get on the Bus

by Franz Patrick


Get on the Bus (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★

African-American men of diverse backgrounds take a bus from South Central Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. to partake in the Million Man March. Some of the passengers include Evan (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) and Junior (De’aundre Bonds), father and son in chains, Xavier (Hill Harper), a UCLA student working on his film thesis, Flip (Andre Braugher), an actor waiting to hear from an agent about a role starring Denzel Washington, and Jeremiah (Ossie Davis), an older gentleman with a talent for prose and music.

Over several days on the road, they get to know each other and it is revealed to them—and to us—that if they truly hope to make important changes toward the betterment of human rights, specifically within the black community, they will have to start with recognizing what they must work on from within. Though “Get on the Bus,” written by Reggie Rock Bythewood and directed by Spike Lee, may focus on the struggle of a group of African-Americans wanting to be heard, to be seen, and to be regarded as an equal, all minorities are likely tol find themselves relating with it.

The picture demands attention—to be seen, to be thought about, and to be evaluated—right from the opening credits. The focus is on a black body—black skin—pure, without clothing, makeup, or jewelry. This body is bound by chains around the neck, the wrists, the ankles. It is shown only in parts, interrupted by black title cards and names in yellow, never as a whole. The song “On the Line” by Michael Jackson is played prominently and beautifully as images and texts coalesce into a poetic and political statement.

Conversations that are worth leaning into have prejudice coursing through their veins. Flip asks Gary (Roger Guenveur Smith), “Are you a mulatto or just white-skinned?” The emphasis is on the word “just,” the real concern being the former, you see. Having a white mother and a black father, Gary takes offense. There is pause, a suggestion that perhaps his whole life he is plagued by this question, in one form or another, that he is used to being on the defensive. Who can blame him? There is an intonation, one that is resentful, in Flip’s question. Gary considers himself black but Flip, arguably, does not. If you consider yourself one thing and another tells or demands that you are another, how would you react?

“There are faggots on the bus,” someone claims after an argument breaks out between Randall (Harry Lennix), proudly out of the closet, and Mike (Steve White), unsure about whether he wishes to continue being in a relationship. A voice suggests that they be kicked off the bus. “How are they supposed to get to the march?” another asks. A joker declares that they ought to skip there. What is a black gay man’s role in the black community? For a group of people who claim to support equal rights, many of them choose the path of blatant hypocrisy: minorities putting down minorities. Is being black and gay mutually exclusive? Do these attributes cancel each other out?

The conversations and arguments are captured with great ear. They are allowed to unfold, sometimes neatly and other times messily, but the characters are not required to go through changes. In fact, what makes the film work as a reflection of modern society is that a lot of them do not change. There is no hero or villain. The people on the bus are just ordinary folks with hopes and dreams, capable of being mean and kind, choosing to be open, to be closed, to be tangled and lost in contradictions.

The emphasis is on the experience, as rocky as it may be, and the meaning of the movement to those aboard the bus on its way to the capital.

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