"Get on the Bus" is not the most exciting title a major new movie could have. But neither was "Do the Right Thing," which turned out to be one of the past decade's most important pictures.
Spike Lee is better at directing films than naming them, and his new comedy-drama is one of his very best, even though its subject - a dozen African-Americans head for the Million Man March on a chartered bus - may also seem rather tame at first glance.
Moviegoers should also take note of its R rating, earned by some very vulgar language.
The story begins in Los Angeles, where a bus called the Spotted Owl is loading up for the controversial rally in Washington, promoted by black leader Louis Farrakhan as a call for increased responsibility among black males.
Who's on the bus
The passengers include an actor who cares more about personal ego than social issues, a recent Muslim convert with a violent past, a mixed-race police officer, a quarreling gay couple, and a budding filmmaker (nicknamed Spike Lee Jr. in an amusing moment) who pokes his camcorder into everyone's business.
Also present are a young father and his teenage son, tethered together as part of the boy's sentence for a criminal conviction. And everybody gets to know Jeremiah, an elderly man who's been through more hard knocks than all the others combined, and sees the trip as a last chance to make up for missing Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic March on Washington three decades earlier.
Lee has always had a streak of the social worker in him, and his movies frequently reflect his ideas about how African-Americans could improve their lot. So it's not surprising to see him fall back on an old Hollywood convention - rounding up a lively crowd of characters in a commonplace setting - and use it to expose cultural tensions and suggest constructive approaches to contemporary problems.
What makes "Get on the Bus" entertaining as well as involving is the tremendous energy and imagination he brings to the story.
Far from being one-dimensional stick figures, his characters are fully rounded and fascinatingly complex.
So are the issues he explores, often by posing conundrums that have no easy answers. Is the father being a responsible role model by remaining handcuffed to his son, or are their shackles an offensive reminder of slavery and oppression? Is a males-only event like the Million Man March a healthy spur to black self-improvement, or yet another way of keeping women out of the public arena? Is discrimination against homosexuals rooted in real moral principles, or does it echo other forms of bigotry that blacks should be the first to recognize and deplore?
These and other questions ricochet through the movie as vigorously as the characters' feisty conversations bounce off the bus's walls. Implicit in many of them is the underlying issue of whether Mr. Farrakhan is a leader who deserves to be followed at all, given his history of anti-Semitic rhetoric and other divisive actions.
Lee treats this as still another problem with no easy answer, and tellingly chooses to include practically none of the march itself within the story.
His film is more about people than politics, although it also suggests that clear boundaries between those categories are impossible to establish in a society where individuals coalesce into groups motivated by ever-shifting sympathies and antagonisms.
Entertaining but serious
This mixture of entertainment and serious thought - frequently centered on moral issues and religious ideas - makes "Get on the Bus" unique among current movies. Lee's achievement is all the more impressive considering that the march is still a recent event, and the movie was made with enormous speed so it could be released on the rally's first anniversary.
Credit goes to everyone who worked on the project, which was financially supported by 14 black investors ranging from actors Danny Glover and Wesley Snipes to lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., basketball star Charles D. Smith, and Lee himself. Reggie Rock Bythewood wrote the finely honed screenplay, and the entire cast earns applause.
Among them are Andre Braugher as the actor, Thomas Jefferson Byrd and DeAundre Bonds as the father and son, Roger Guenveur Smith as the cop, Hill Harper as the film student, and Gabriel Casseus as the former gang member.
Special praise goes to Charles Dutton and Richard Belzer as the bus's two drivers, an African-American and a Jew who provide one of the film's most touching moments when a confrontation between them illustrates Lee's earnest understanding of the racial challenges facing white as well as black Americans.
And some sort of Oscar should go to the great Ossie Davis, who makes old Jeremiah one of the most engaging figures in the large character-gallery he has created for Lee and other directors. Whether warming to a new friend, arguing over a hard issue, or offering up a heartfelt prayer, he's the kind of person you remember long after the movie has faded from the screen. Any bus with him aboard can't help being a pleasure to ride.
*'Get on the Bus' has an R rating. It contains some extremely vulgar language, including raunchy talk about sexual activity.