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All Aboard Spike Lee's `Bus'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 18, 1996; Page N37

IN "GET ON the Bus," 20 African American men board an L.A. bus headed for Washington. It's mid-October 1995, and they're going to the Million Man March. In the three days it takes to cross the country, these strangers fight, laugh, sing and -- in one exertive incident -- push the bus out of a ditch.

By the time they have pulled into the nation's capital, they're friends for life. It's a simple, appealing premise and filmmaker Spike Lee uses it to full comic advantage.

When Lee has fun in his movies, a liberating atmosphere fills the air. That's the case here. And given the potential for divisive soap-boxing in a project like this, he's relatively restrained and humanistic. Lee seems as interested in the comedy (the jokey back-and-forth on board) as in the story's ostensible mission (to reach a racial, spiritual, unifying high ground for black men). And he does what he does best: directing people to be spontaneous and funny.

When a braggart of an actor (Andre Braugher) talks a big game about his movie career, he's challenged by a fellow passenger (Roger Guenveur Smith).

"Have you been in any movies?" asks Smith.

"Did you see `Boyz N the Hood'?" says Braugher.

"You were in that?" Smith asks, incredulous.

"Almost," says Braugher.

This bus (part of a company called Spotted Owl -- as in endangered species) is driven by bus driver Charles S. Dutton (later to be replaced by driver Richard Belzer). And with each passing mile, the passengers measure their attitudes and points of view against one another.

Gabriel Casseus, a devout Muslim who has seen and participated in the terror of the streets, comes up against Smith, a racially mixed cop whose policeman-father was killed in the line of duty by a black man.

Thomas Jefferson Byrd, a less-than-fantastic father, has been ordered by the courts to escort his own, chained son (DeAundre Bonds) everywhere. Bound for the march, he's confronted with his child -- who now insists on being called Smooth -- for the first time in years.

Proud-to-be-gay activist Harry Lennix shares the bus with a lover (Isaiah Washington) who's uncomfortable about broadcasting his sexual preference. "Oh, I forgot," retorts Lennix, loudly enough for all to hear. "We can't let your macho [expletive] out of the closet."

Like all long journeys, "Get on the Bus" (which was written by Reggie Rock Bythewood and partly financed by contributions from Danny Glover, Wesley Snipes, Will Smith, Johnnie Cochran and other prominent African Americans) has its slower, tedious moments. The least effective are also the politically most divisive: a long-winded discussion about the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, for instance; and a frank discussion about the political significance of having a white, Jewish driver (Belzer) who's clearly not thrilled to be taking these spirited brothers to Chocolate City.

But most of the time, Lee keeps the arguments in-house, as it were. And he's not afraid to make light work of everyone. When the bus is stuck in that ditch, Dutton orders everyone out to push. But the vehicle remains stuck. Their dream of getting to Washington seems derailed. Dutton starts off with what he considers a rousing speech.

"When Hannibal crossed the Alps," he begins.

"Who's Hannibal?" come a few voices. Dutton is obliged to come up with something that will hit home better, something to make them give that extra heave-ho.

"Which tribe do you belong to, anyway?" he bellows. "Shaka Zulu's or Clarence Thomas's?"

GET ON THE BUS (R) -- Contains profanity and racial epithets. Area theaters.

© 1996 The Washington Post Company