“Get on the Bus:” A Critical Review

Friday, April 17, 2009
Author: Bryan Ghingold

 

When Get on the Bus (Lee, 1996) came out on October 16, 1996, the one-year anniversary of the Million Man March, critical review tended to be positive. Of the reviews I found, the praise was generally for Lee’s penchant to depict “real people” and create what many reviewers called his best film since Do the Right Thing (Lee, 1989). Interestingly, most of the criticism tended to be the same as well; that by including such a dynamic range of characterizations, Lee’s film fails to make any one person’s story truly empathetic. Many reviews asserted that Lee’s film is reflexive, recalling the moment in the film when characters complain about the “4 R’s” (rap, rape, rob, and riot) while they, as representations of Black Society in Lee’s film, subvert this notion.

 

The first review I read came from the Austin Chronicle. In her untitled review of Get on the Bus on October 16, 1996, Marjorie Baumgarten asserts that the film is “a smart, funny, passionate, and open-ended tribute to the spirit of the [Million Man March].” Her entire review serves as a plot summary, and her only critique comes at the end when she complains that “Occasionally, certain aspects of the film, which can seem overly schematic and speech-dotted, work less effectively than others.” Baumgarten praises Lee and his film for their visual and thematic styles. She feels the style worked well with the claustrophobic setting of a chartered bus. She closes her review with the assertion that the film is a progressive text, and makes a very veiled reference to Lawrence Fishburne’s last line in School Daze (Lee, 1988) when she says that Spike Lee’s new movie “is the equivalent of the conductor’s cry of “All aboard.”

 

Stacey Richter’s October 24, 1996 review for the Tucson Weekly is significantly less impressed with the film. She is the first critic I read who felt that the abundance of characters led to a detraction of their sincerity and ability to be empathized with. She says some of the conflicts “have the tinny, salubrious feel of an ABC After School Special.” She does not feel that the venue of a cramped bus is appropriate for the kind of social critique Lee wanted to make, saying that in its dependency on the bus, the film “adopted the formula of a one-act play.” Richter’s view of the film is not entirely negative however, and she praises Lee’s visual style (specifically his use of color-corrected grainy sequences which resemble “pointillist paintings—and which are startlingly beautiful”). The remainder of her review, as most reviews I encountered, was a plot summary.

 

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle is more in line with Baumgarten’s view of the film. In his review from the film’s release date, He states it is “a piece of instant history… clearly made with an eye on the future.” LaSalle is the only critic I read who recognizes that Get on the Bus may not be appreciated in its own time. Dissenting from Baumgarten and Richter, LaSalle asserts that the dynamic between all the characters on the bus feels “organic,” and that the discourse between characters is lively and relevant. He had nothing bad to say about the film.

 

In a Washington Post review from the opening day of the film, Esther Iverem shares the view that the film suffers from too many characters. Her review is anecdotal; retelling the scene where Jamal (Gabriel Casseus) retells of his days as a Crip from his seat on the bus, and how the cluttered, claustraphobic film delivers this scene in passing, when Iverem feels it deserves its own attention. Her proposed solution or suggestion to Lee was to include fewer characters, and offer a glimpse into their “normal” lives (off the bus) either in flashback or in a sequence preceding the boarding of the Spotted Owl. Her biggest critique is of the ending, which she feels “fizzles” as a result of Lee’s “maddeningly predictable habit of flawing each of his movies.” She feels the film is redeemable only because it offers a fresh perspective of Black Society that Hollywood does not usually entertain.

 

Barbara Shulgasser’s review in The Examimer, which is also from the film’s opening day, feels that the film is one of Lee’s best, and is a pleasurable homage to an old-time cinema genre which saw many people come together, confess their sins, and bond with each other. Most of Shulgasser’s review is plot summary, but her commentary on the film is overwhelmingly positive; praising the film’s fair script and exploration of topics Lee could have easily glanced over, such as the heavily divergent opinion amongst the bus riders of Louis Farrakhan. Her only critique of the film is that it doesn’t end with personal growth of any kind. She recognizes Lee’s deliberate choice to end the film this way, but disagrees with it when she says it “only reiterates something the movie didn’t mention- that the men who most needed to be at that march weren’t.”

 

Todd McCarthy’s review for Variety is probably the deepest and most balanced review of Get on the Bus. Perhaps I say that because McCarthy’s views align almost identically with my own, but his review really struck me as better than the rest. Reviewed on October 2, 1996, fourteen days before it’s debut, McCarthy praises the film as Lee’s “comeback” from his previously “disappointing” works (Crooklyn [Lee, 1994], Clockers [Lee, 1995], and Girl 6 [Lee, 1996]. Three films which did not garner much enthusiasm amongst filmgoers and Lee fans). McCarthy is another reviewer who recognizes and points out the reflexivity of Lee’s Get on the Bus for simultaneously complaining that all “black” films depict “the 4 R’s,” while demonstrating otherwise. In his plot summary, McCarthy recognizes and calls attention to the plot point that Evan (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) is bringing his delinquent son Junior (De’Aundre Bonds) to the Million Man March in chains. He is also the only reviewer I read who calls to attention the mysterious Nation of Islam character, clad in a bow tie and suit who never speaks. McCarthy draws attention to the fact that the framing and composition of the film leads us to believe the character will speak or have a major “payoff” moment, which Lee (deliberately) never delivers. He is also the only critic to comment on Lee’s well known use of and affinity for music, mentioning Terrence Blanchard’s score as well as a number performed by Michal Jackson.

 

Two days after the film’s general release, Roger Ebert offered his review of the film. It was the only review I read which fused plot summary with critique so seamlessly, rather than offering them in separate chunks. I hesitate to say this is because Ebert is the most well-known and “seasoned” film critic, and as such his writings will be more professional than his peers, but I was impressed with his style. As far as content, Ebert views the film as extraordinary. He compares it to his feelings that Do The Right Thing (which seems to be the go-to film most critics compare Lee’s post-1989 works against) was “fair,” and says that Get on the Bus is fair “in the same sense.” Ebert diverges from his contemporaries and states forthright that he feels the breadth of characters and diversity allow for empathy and identification rather than detract from it. Finally, he praises its subtlety in showing “how things are [rather] than scoring cheap rhetorical points. This is a film with a full message for the heart, and the mind.”

 

The final review I read was an (early) online critique from a German website by Steve Rhodes. The review was written on October 21, 1996, five days after the film debuted. It was by far my least favorite review, and borders on being worthless for a lack of academic integrity. Perhaps Rhodes is German, and the grammar issues stem from a failure to properly translate his essay, but reading the review, I wanted to take a red pen to it. When I finally reached the end where he critically lambasts the film for its visual style and chalks up the color correction and grainy segments to a “problem with the print” and “rushing the show to theaters,” Rhodes demonstrated his complete ignorance and lack of credibility. He goes on to promote his own hubris by saying

 

As a film critic, I see lots of low budget pictures including ones (sic) where everything is financed on the filmmaker’s Visa card. None of them have had severe color problems like this picture.

 

His overall view of the film is negative; reiterating the notion that its cast of characters clutters the film and makes it easy to lose track of plotlines and empathy.

 

Reading these reviews from the time the film came out was very eye opening for me. I had no idea critics had the issue about space and cast of characters that they did. I was expecting to read scathing reviews of Lee’s one-dimensional portrayal of the gay couple, or the absence of women, but in fact, these elements were barely touched upon. Get on the Bus is one of my favorite Spike Lee films. Ironically (or fittingly), the two films I was moved to go out and purchase after taking this course were Do the Right Thing and Get on the Bus; two films which several critics compared to each other as being similar in tone, style, and fairness.

 

 

 

 

Citations:

1.Baumgarted, Marjorie. “Get on the Bus.” The Austin Chronicle. 18 Oct. 1996.

Accessed online 17 April 2009.<http://www.austinchronicle.com/

gyrobase/Calendar/Film?Film=oid:138020>.

2.Ebert, Roger. “Get on the Bus.” Chicago Sun-Times. 18 Oct. 1996. Accessed

online 17 April 2009. <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/

article?AID=/19961018/REVIEWS/610180301/1023>.

3.Iverem, Esther. “Destination Unknown.” The Washington Post. 16 Oct. 1996.

Accessed online 17 April 2009. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/review96/getonthebusiverem.htm>.

4.LaSalle, Mick. “’Bus’ Takes Lee Where He’s Going: Political Themes Mesh with

Story.” San Francisco Chronicle. 16 Oct. 1996. Accessed online 17 April 2009. < http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/1996/10/16/ DD56086.DTL>.

5.McCarthy, Todd. “Get on the Bus.” Variety. 7 Oct. 1996. Accessed online 17

April 2009. <http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117905658.html? categoryid=31&cs=1&p=0>.

6.Rhodes, Steve. “Get on the Bus.” Rec.arts.movies.reviews newsgroup. 21 Oct.

1996. Accessed online 17 April 2009. <http://www.imdb.com/ Reviews/61/6199>.

7.Richter, Stacey. “Get on the Bus.” Tucson Weekly. 24 Oct. 1996. Accessed online

17 April 2009. <http://www.filmvault.com/filmvault/tw/g/getonthebus

_f.html>.

8.Shulgasser, Barbara. “Get on the Bus: Spike Lee comes up with an old-fashioned

movie about the Million Man March in Washington.” The Examiner. 16 Oct. 1996. Accessed online 17 April 2009. <http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/e/a/1996/10/16/STYLE13484.dtl>.

Images taken from the internet used without permission for illustrative effect and not for profit

 

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