This one's got wheels

Get on the Bus Spike Lee (15) By Adam Mars-Jones
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The Independent Culture
The "Million Man March" on the Mall in Washington in October 1995 was a uniquely American political event, a challenge to the status quo that was also a moment of virile introspection, almost on the Iron John model. Women were not welcome - this was a man thing, initiated by Louis Farrakhan but attended by many thousands who disagreed with him on important issues.

Now Spike Lee has made a fiction film set round the march, a suitably educational and sometimes sentimental affair, a soap opera of consciousness- raising. A dozen black men set off by bus from South Central Los Angeles to travel to Washington. There's a wayward son shackled to his father for 72 hours by court order, there's an actor, a businessman and a cop. There's a gay couple in the process of breaking up. During the three days of the trip a whole raft of issues is thrashed out, including some prejudices not often aired.

Get on the Bus has a mellow vitality surprising in a film made more or less on the run, scheduled as it was for American release on the first anniversary of the march. The script, by Reggie Rock Bythewood, alternates pat resolutions and sharp refusals of closure in a way that never quite becomes predictable. The bus runs off the road and gets stuck, so the passengers have to work together to nudge it out of its rut. They manage to do that, but the bus turns out to be damaged, and all the African-American solidarity in the world can't get it moving again. In the course of the film, all the men on the bus get to say their piece except the one who looks caricaturally like a Farrakhan zealot, an uptight piece of work in a bow-tie.

The film's modest budget was raised on a venture capital basis, with 15 prominent African-Americans stumping up a $100,000 or so each. The constraints on spending and the need for speed have pushed the director towards a relatively anonymous style, his individuality expressed mainly in a palette of strong burnt tawny colours. There are only a couple of self-conscious references to Spike Lee's slightly precarious status as the top black film-maker in the US. The 19-year-old on the bus with a Camcorder is called X (short for Xavier, but recalling the title of Lee's most ambitious film) and is even referred to as "Spike Lee Junior". The emphatic shots of the driver's Nike shoes on the pedals as he tries to start the bus may be a product-placement, or simply wry acknowledgement of the company that gave Lee his start as a maker of commercials.

Lee chooses to start the film with confrontational images - a montage of a man in chains - and conciliatory sounds, Michael Jackson crooning "You've got to take that chip off your shoulder." In the bulk of the film, it's conciliation that wins out. There are little flurries of melodrama - a fist fight, a chase through the woods - but talking is what makes the difference.

In one clever sequence, the guys on the bus stop at a bar near Memphis to eat and drink. The bar is full of red-necks. We wait for trouble, but not a bit of it. The other patrons are soon on first-name terms with them, and the barman listens with interest as Jeremiah (Ossie Davis), the patriarch of the party, explains that steer-wrestling was invented by a black rodeo rider, Bill Pickett. Then, a few miles down the road, the bus is pulled over and searched for drugs by state troopers who show the lightest possible racist contempt - more than enough to make the pilgrims feel sick.

The mood of the film is strongly ecumenical. Young and old learn to understand each other better, though in the case of Jeremiah, it's more that the young come to realise the value of the history he knows as well as the past he represents. The shackled father and son develop a bond both more abstract and more real when the older man takes responsibility for his absence from the boy's childhood. Other issues aren't so cleanly resolved. At first, it looks as if the gay men are token presences, but, of course, they have the formal advantage that, in an all-male party, they are the only people to bring their partners with them, and the bonus of a screenwriter who has reversed stereotype by making one of the gay men an ex-Marine (Gulf War veteran) and his chief persecutor an actor. Their conflict leads to a fight, but with the combat skills on the gay side, it's a defeat for bigotry.

The homophobia and anti-semitism of Farrakhan, sometimes latent, sometimes patent, is acknowledged without being felt to be adequate reason to boycott a march with a broad agenda (though the driver of the replacement bus, who is Jewish, can't deal with it and leaves). The only person to be thrown off the bus is a Republican car-dealer who cadged a ride along the way, and that's not because he's a Republican but because he is abusing the ideals of the march. All he wants to do is some selfish networking.

The fascinating and frustrating thing about Do the Right Thing was the feeling that the director was pushing his melodrama towards a particular political agenda, a justification of violence. The new film is scrupulously moderate. The untidiest element in Get on the Bus is the developing ideological conflict between two men who like each other well enough personally - the policeman Gary (Roger Guenveur Smith), whose father was killed by a gang member, and Jamal (Gabriel Casseus), a gang member who got religion and now works to keep young people from making his mistakes. At the end of the film, Gary is still vowing to arrest him for killings he has admitted in conversation.

The intractability of this argument suggests that neither extreme is viable: neither playing everything by the book, nor working out your own salvation by yourself. If Spike Lee has any reservations about the more nebulous side of the script, and the march's touchy-feely, male-bonding aspect, perhaps he shows them in a scene where the men grieve outside a hospital, separated from each other by their sorrow, like no female group since tears began n

`Get on the Bus' goes on release tomorrow