Fantastic voyage

Spike Lee's Get on the Bus takes us to amazing places

For most of his 12-year career, director Spike Lee has shouldered a unique burden among young, contemporary black filmmakers. John Singleton, Albert and Allen Hughes, and Matty Rich earned their reputations with debut features that vividly explored inner-city crime. Spike Lee--whose earlier mainstream success arguably opened doors in lily-white Hollywood for all those talents--had the nerve to explore topics that had nothing to do with African-American violence. Beginning with his 1986 first feature, She's Gotta Have It, and running through School Daze, Mo' Better Blues, Crooklyn, and Girl 6, Spike Lee was the moviemaker who dared to depict black male characters without a gun in their hand or crack smoke in their lungs.

Even when Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, and Malcolm X addressed the debilitating effects of urban crime on the black community, the topic was relegated to subplot status. An entirely new award for best supporting actor was created at the Cannes Film Festival for Samuel L. Jackson's unforgettable performance as a crack addict in Jungle Fever. Do The Right Thing simmered with the interracial tensions of Bed-Stuy on a hot summer day, finally flowering into a riot that had less to do with black outrage per se than the inevitable boiling over of an overloaded, underattended melting pot. In both cases, Spike Lee seems to have integrated addiction and violence into his films almost as footnotes to his scrappy, cerebral theses on the dead end of interracial relationships, both personal and communitywide. Lee is a revolutionary whose stories never fully embrace the bloody consequences of revolution.

This reticence has earned the director more than his share of criticism from both African-American and Anglo quarters. Was Spike Lee in denial? Had he shirked his responsibility as a successful black maker of media images when he didn't address the decimation of a generation of young black urban males?

Everyone was so busy talking about what Spike Lee didn't do, they ignored the startling nuances he'd discovered in his best moments. To be sure, his career has been spotted with near-hits and utter failures. So far, he has achieved unqualified greatness only with Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X. But each of his movies contains an uncommon sympathy for the fear that lurks on both sides of America's racial divide. Much of Anglo America has pegged Spike Lee as an Angry Black Male, based mostly on his acid-tongued comments during interviews. It's true that Lee has gone on record with statements about Jews, women, and gays that would never have been tolerated if they'd come from a white filmmaker (unless he happens to be Oliver Stone). It's also true that he has displayed a certain clumsiness when it comes to presenting all three, particularly women; his movies have either ignored or shortchanged each the humanity that well-rounded characters deserve. (This is also true of Martin Scorcese, although no one has bothered to hold this overrated filmmaker to the same standard).

Still, many critics have forgotten the old maxim that says never listen to the artist, listen to his work. The bottom line about Spike Lee is that he's fairer, more introspective, and less dogmatic than his press clips have suggested. Personally, I'd also be thin-skinned if the media declared me The Voice of My Community. From the start, Lee has never been allowed to feel his own way through important issues; opinions have been demanded from him by an America that presses a sociological wish list onto its first celebrated African-American moviemaker. Spike Lee's movies often carry the angry edge of which everyone accuses him, but he has never been afraid of directing that anger toward other African-Americans.

His new film, Get on the Bus, is a powerful exorcism of troubles plaguing black America and of the enormous expectations placed on this black American filmmaker. It's also a pulsating, sophisticated, albeit flawed piece of independent moviemaking. Spike Lee and his producers actually waved the budget that Columbia Pictures offered because they found so many well-heeled black investors eager to participate, including Lee himself, Danny Glover, Wesley Snipes, Johnnie Cochran, and Will Smith. The result is a rowdy, uncompromising political meditation aimed straight at black America, although whites will also find plenty of meat to chew on here.

Get on the Bus takes place during a three-day period as 12 very different black men from South Central Los Angeles board a bus en route to Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March in Washington, D.C. Spike Lee uses hand-held cameras and nontraditional film stocks as he records the opinions of men who find the color of their skin doesn't guarantee the harmony of their politics. He sets up an ambitious series of confrontations among disparate factions--light skin and dark skin, straight and gay, cop and gang member, father and son, Muslim and Jew, Democrat and Republican. Get on the Bus trains its jittery lens on each of these face-offs, but what's most startling is their confessional quality. Lee has returned African-American movie characters to full-blooded power because he has reintroduced their vulnerability and their bigotry.

Indeed, as silly as it sounds, a white viewer is startled to watch black film characters espouse certain philosophies that reflect neither victim nor victimizer, but individuals battling to make sense of a racist world. No one could be more smug, self-serving, and prejudiced than Flip (the superb Andre Braugher, from TV's Homicide), an opportunistic actor with a cell phone attached to one ear and a mouth that spouts all kinds of offensive remarks to a "mulatto" cop and a bickering gay couple (Harry Lennix and Isaiah Washington). And yet it's Flip's very complacency--and his hard-earned wisdom along the bus' rickety journey--that best illustrates the point Lee tries to make: The African-American community, like any other American minority you can name, contains a microcosm of the larger battle for justice waged in America's headlines, the struggle for victory of the individual against the baggage placed on him by memberships in various communities. The characters in Get on the Bus transcend mere mouthpieces because none seems fully comfortable with the role he has been handed; the bitterness each expresses is the flavor of men forced to reconcile their hopes inside the imposed "unity" of a political rally.

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