Various things come to one’s mind when discussing a filmmaker like Spike Lee. Be it his use of visual flights of fancy like the double dolly shot that he has turned into his calling card, or his deeply rooted interest in race and its place in the modern world, Spike Lee has become as interesting and influential a filmmaker as we have working today. A documentarian, a fiction filmmaker, a writer and a director, this legendary and often controversial multi-hyphenate has a myriad of films that have both become synonymous with their moment in time (Do The Right Thing, the post-9/11 masterpiece 25th Hour) as well as seemingly overlooked and forgotten (previous FCC approved picture Bamboozled), but all of which carrying the Spike Lee auteur stamp.
One of the latter films, the films that time has seemingly forgotten, is also one of his most distilled and entrancing. Entitled Get On The Bus, this seemingly small scale, faux one-location stage play of a motion picture may not sound like a thrilling masterpiece of cinema, but when taken in context of both Lee as a voice and Lee as a medium-pushing artist of the highest regard.
Arriving in theaters just one year after 1995’s Million Man March, the film follows the story of a group of African-American men who take up shop on a bus, with the hopes of making it from LA to DC to be part of this historic event. Lee’s picture introduces us to each one of these men. Led by George (Charles S. Dutton), this cast of characters includes a father and a son chained to one another by court order due to the younger half’s recent theft charge, a gay couple on the outs and the mixed-race son of a fallen police officer, all of whom not only get their own moments to truly take hold of the picture dramatically, but are painted with such truth, vitality and vibrancy, that they each add a level of depth to the film, ultimately reaching a level that Lee’s pictures rarely get.
At first glance, this cast is an absolute knock out collection of talent. The closest thing we have to a lead here is Charles S. Dutton as George, the group’s default leader and the bus driver. He’s great here, as he’s given much of the film’s dramatic weight, a weight that his shoulders are luckily strong enough to carry. Thomas Jefferson Byrd and De’Aundre Bonds are the stars here though, as the film’s father son team. They have arguably the most grounded arch, one that culminates in one of the most powerful bits of writing and acting in the entire film. Roger Guenveur Smith is solid here as the mixed race member of the LAPD who sparks a conversation with a handful of people, primarily Gabriel Casseus’ Jamal, a former gang member turned follower of Allah. Rounding out the cast are names like Andre Braugher and Ossie Davis, one of the most exciting and truly superb collections of acting talent Spike Lee would ever have at his disposal.
But it’s ultimately Spike Lee’s show. Aesthetically, this film is rather startling. Ostensibly a one location stage play of sorts, Lee embeds within the film so much aesthetic playfulness that it becomes absolutely engrossing. Be it the intimacy with which Lee shoots some of the more intense character interchanges, or the way he switches out the film stock and amps up the contrast during some of the more intense moments, Lee creates a film that is both visually playful and yet not distracting with regards to the performances. Yet, as with most Lee pictures, the screenplay here is the real show stealer.
Throughout his career, Lee’s pictures have always carried within their scripts a very stage-influenced aesthetic. Be it the stage play nature of a film like Red Hook Summer or the lyricism found in one of his biggest box office hits, Inside Man, there is always a sense of poetry to the language Lee uses. Sounding like the music a jazz percussionist would make, the way Lee’s scripts are brought to the screen really give each film a swing to them. Each character has a different rhythm to them (Braugher’s Flip could not be further away from Davis’ wise and thoughtful Jeremiah), but when each character gets into a conversation with another, they make the most powerful of music. There are a handful of scenes here that are electric and unforgettable, be it the reveal of one of the character’s past or a discussion between a distant father and a son who needs him now more than ever, all of which turn this film into a really powerful piece of dramatic writing. And intellectually, it’s no slouch either. Ostensibly a meditation on then-modern race relations in this country, the film is definitively Spike Lee in that it pulls no punches when discussing things like gang violence. However, the beauty of this film here is that Lee doesn’t just make this about the black experience in this country. Embedding characters that are mixed-race, gay and Muslim really adds a great deal of depth to the picture, which ultimately wishes to bring to light minority issues in this country, not just African-American. It’s a powerful screenplay with superb performances and some of the best pacing a film of this nature could ever wish to have.
Currently only available on an older DVD, this is a film that desperately needs a new Blu-ray. A new restoration could bring to light just how fantastic this film is aesthetically, and how sonically, the film has a knockout score. A commentary from Lee is absolutely welcome here, as would be a retrospective piece collecting any talent from the film that may be interested in chatting it up. It’s such a performance driven picture that it would most certainly be of interest to hear what cast members would have to say about their experience working on the picture. Toss in an interview with a scholar about the film and about what the Million Man March meant to race relations, and you’d have a top notch release. Get On The Bus may be one of Lee’s least known pictures, but this vital and unforgettable look at a collection of social issues plaguing this country is one of his best and most intimate pictures. Sure, it may come off heavy handed (particularly the final shot), but as a piece of faux-social journalism, this is a truly breathtaking piece of work, and one that needs to be seen by any and everyone.