Spike Lee: Get on the Bus (1996) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
26Oct/140

Spike Lee: Get on the Bus (1996)

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A group of black men from different backgrounds gather together in a single bus to travel to the Million Man March of 1995.  Get on the Bus is director Spike Lee's 10th feature-film.

On spiritual mattersAndrewCommentaryBannerWe're now ten films into Spike Lee's career and one aspect that we've touched on before, that will be impossible to ignore with Get on the Bus, is Spike's appreciation for traditional theater.  Get on the Bus does not have stagey blocking, or obviously manufactured sets that require the suspension of disbelief that theater does, but Get on the Bus is about the performance of gender and Spike creates the film accordingly.  Each scene is an exquisitely rendered individual stage for each man to put his case on display for what being a black man in America means to them with richly colored lighting and exaggerated camera angles.

This is great staging considering the scenario for Get on the Bus, which has the passengers on their ride to the '95 Million Man March at the behest of Louis Farrakhan.  All of the characters are testing their personas in advance of potential public exposure and the bus, as well as the various pit stops along the way, is their performance stage.  What's great with Get on the Bus is that it's not a 2-hour montage of chest thumping, but a series of soliloquies shifting into verbal duels that have these men trying to collectively figure out the best path forward for all of them.

There's a lot to plug into here, from the performance of masculinity, Spike's exaggerated staging, and possibly the tightest script and editing Spike's films have had to date.  But before we start getting into specifics, how was your take?‏Pray with meKyle Commentary BannerComparing it to a play actually helps articulate why I couldn’t get into the movie too much. It’s obvious Spike wants the men to represent broad types that can speak to specific issues within the black male community, and in their discussions they plainly lay out conflicting views, attitudes, and the general state of thought around the Issue(s) they each represent, shifting as those may be from scene to scene. It seems almost as if the first act of the film is a kind of state-of-the-union from which later scenes and discussions can evolve.

The problem I had really engaging here is that everything is so plainly stated all the time that there's a level of complexity these discussions can never get past. I felt like, more than any previous film of Spike's, that I was being lectured to here. He's always been a fan of very direct, didactic dialogue, but here it's at a high point when it needs to pull back a little and let the characters speak with the nuance and complexity of real people. I think there are some moments where that does happen—a lot of the conversations around Farrakhan's involvement get there, and were the most interesting points of the movie for me—but by and large the conversations seemed too concerned with going down a list and ticking off important talking points for multiple sides, and not concerned enough with really embodying the ideas.

No doubt this is the approach Spike wanted—I don't think this is a failure in what he was trying to do, so much as a failure in judgement on the form and approach. It's also important to note that a lot of these conversations would have been bold and controversial to even put on-screen at the time, but by defining so many of the characters and moments only by the social and political points he wanted to inject into the larger dialogue, Spike made a movie that hasn't aged well for me.‏The ethics of silenceNewer Andrew cutout commentaryI don't feel the conversations have aged as much as you think.  Remember during the '12 election cycle when conservative pundits were absolutely sure that Obama coming out in support of gay marriage, no matter how tepid it really was, would kill off some of his support from the black community?  Or this year, when we can barely go a week without another unarmed black man getting killed by the police?  Part of what made Get on the Bus so vital for me was precisely because these conversations have not gone far beyond the starting points Spike discusses here.

The exchange that I think shows that Spike's not just checking off a talking points list is the brilliant sequence when Wendell (Wendell Pierce) gets on the bus because he smells economic opportunity in the air.  I love the way he bounces off Kyle and Randall (Isaiah Washington and Harry J. Lennix) here, and from Wendell's unabashed support of Capitalism and the Republican Party we hear Kyle voicing a degree of support for them as well.  It's hilarious, and sad, that everyone immediately jumps on Kyle as a black gay Republican, when all he really did was agree with just a bit of what Wendell is saying and recognize, correctly, that Democrats are more interested in chucking tranquilizing bits to black Americans instead of radical change.

In fairness, a lot of the exchanges in the film are not this complex, and the only one I can think of that comes close involves George (Charles S. Dutton) and Rick (Richard Belzer). But Wendell's sequence has perfect comic timing, and I love the pull-back for the "black gay Republican" line so that we can see everyone else's reaction.  There's also that excellent shot of Wendell being thrown out of the bus in a fun, screwball moment that caps off the scene perfectly.  This sequence shows that Spike isn't just checking off a list, but really thinking and presenting how these viewpoints either have to evolve or will die by being unable to exist with one another.  If it wasn't filled with so many exaggerated shots it might be boring, but the rhythm of the conversation combined with Spike's exacting sense of where to put the camera in the bus make it great cinema versus a what might look like a decently adapted play.‏Emotional baggageTiny Kyle CommentaryI'm with you on the point that a lot of these conversations are still happening in the public dialogue in much the same way they're presented in the film, though I think outside the sphere of politicians and the 24-hour news media you'd find them happening with at least some degree more complexity and nuance than they do here—that doesn't necessarily mean Spike should have foreseen that in 1996, as he was making a movie for that specific cultural state and time, but it does make our current state more sad.

One of the things that's been interesting about almost all Spike's films so far is how he speaks directly to a contemporary black audience, pulling in at the same time a lot of contemporary aesthetic trends and music. On the one hand, that creates a pretty distinct time-stamp on the films (here's another case where we've got oddly out-of-place-by-today's-standards music playing over a scene of confrontation, when the two men get off the bus to fight each other). On the other, there are moments where I wonder if what Spike wants to do more so than telling a story is to simply speak to and with the audience. A pretty significant barrier for me in some of the previous films has been the way these artist-to-audience conversations are couched in stories that don't seem to be very important to Spike on their own grounds.

That he's getting into more documentaries soon is both interesting and appropriate—I'm always interested in what he has to say, but the movies don't always engage me past that point. I haven't actually seen any of his documentaries before, and I'm curious to see how the aesthetic shifts they'll require will change my perception of Spike as a director.‏The great OssieNewer Andrew cutout commentaryThose aesthetic shifts, especially with the music, are what I loved about Get on the Bus though.  That fight especially, with the music blaring and the background lit by those deep greens and purples, was a wonderfully moment of cinematic expression.  I love how it underlines how the world of tension and conversation on the bus is the "natural" world with its non-artificial lighting and clear photography versus the harsh stock and yellow of the early confrontations and the contrasting green and purple of a climactic fist-fight.  The use of music is also key to one of my favorite scenes in the film, when the men engage in mutual exchange of joyous self-promotion.

That moment is key to why Get on the Bus works so well for me.  He's presenting this specific piece of culture in its birth environment and letting it blossom with whatever conflict it may.  It's also why those conversations, especially the one regarding the difference between the Holocaust and the slave trade (which is a comparison no reasonable person should ever be making), feel much less like educational pieces and more long-simmering expressions that these people can finally get out.  I love that Spike has no tolerance for limp liberals who only take a cursory stance against the issues black men were, and continue to, face but that focus is directed against his brothers as well.

What's been interesting to me so far is that you and I have had very similar opinions on most of the films we've looked at in our multiple projects, but when it comes to Spike's filmography we're disagreeing a lot more.  I love the big emotions and grand displays when they're done so well, and Get on the Bus is second only to Do the Right Thing in these first ten films.  Get on the Bus may not have that out-of-control urgency that Do the Right Thing does, but it's still an important film.

One final note, I'm grateful for the opportunity to go through Spike's films like this if only so that I can finally get a more rounded appreciation for Ossie Davis.  Before we started I had only seen him in Do the Right Thing and Bubba Ho-Tep.  While I loved him in the former and admired him in the latter, getting to see him work in so many roles within Spike's filmography has been spectacular.  His performance here is an interesting alternative to the old drunk in Do the Right Thing, as instead of launching himself into harm's way here he puts in a lot of energy at the beginning of his interventions before having to pull back for reasons we eventually discover.  I best like his role in Jungle Fever as a kind of relic of Old Testament judgment uncomfortably existing with New Testament forgiveness.  This, along with Davis writings on Spike and Malcolm X, have been the most exciting discovery so far and I can't wait to look through Davis' career as well.

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Next, podcast roundup of the first ten Spike Lee films.Spike Film Selection

Posted by Andrew

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