Get on the Bus
This Friday we're talking about a Spike Lee Joint! Spike Lee is one of my favorite directors. I love the realistic style of his films. He directs in such a way that is close to the audience and seems unedited. He is dedicated to telling Black stories and genuinely showing the struggles and issues within the Black community. I respect him, as a filmmaker, for never shying away from a topic and not conforming to standard, inauthentic, Hollywood-esque cinematic storytelling. I believe he is a pioneer of Black film and each of his films displays a bravery to defend and loyalty to the Black community.
For Get on the Bus, I will be focusing on some of the different characters and what part of or issue they represented within the Black community. Like most of Spike Lee's work, I see this film as more subject-driven than character or plot-driven. Spike Lee is an expert at creating strong characters in films that are not about the specific characters. He is a political and social commentator and uses film to create a forum for speaking on racism and injustice.
The Million Man March, 1995
Get on the Bus follows a bus-load of Black men on their way to the historic Million Man March that took place at the Washington Mall on October 16, 1995. This event was inspired and led by Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam. He called on Black men to atone for their past actions and take responsibility for their hand in the struggles of the Black community. The event was a peaceful march where Black men of every profession, social class and city came to have fellowship with their fellow brothers and no fights were started nor arrests made. Speeches from prominent figures like Farrakhan himself, Dr. Maya Angelou, and many others filled the Washington air as the audience listened, learned and grew as a community.
The event was under scrutiny from Black women who saw the march as exclusionary. While I can see and understand why women would feel this way, I personally don't see it as exclusionary. Feel free to email me or leave a comment with your thoughts on The Million Man March!
Get on the Bus: Brief Summary
The film follows a bus of Black men traveling from L.A. to Washington D.C. over a span of 6 days, to attend The Million Man March in 1995. While on the bus, the men learn that each of them has lived a different life and have pain and issues they need to address in order to become better men. They want to attend the march to stand for what they believe and learn to be better men but the days-long bus ride serves to be all the lessons they need. On the bus, issues within the Black community are represented in characters and addressed. These issues include: homophobia, fatherhood, gang violence and Black on Black crime, infidelity and treatment of women, police brutality and Black police officers, classism, colorism and being mixed, putting others in your community down, teenage pregnancy and allyship of non-Black people.
One of the main characters is constantly filming within the movie. He plays a film student at UCLA and is recording the Million Man March and their journey from L.A. to D.C. for his film thesis as well as interviewing the men on the bus. The film itself also has a cam-recorder feel and is edited in such a way that feels like an unedited home-video. In Spike Lee fashion, the film gives the feel that we are watching authentic interactions between these men and are part of very raw and important conversations. The film challenges what it means to be a leader, displaying that acknowledging flaws and mistakes and growing from that are attributes of a healthy, effective and inclusive leader.
I appreciated this film because it did not feel like a film about Black people that was made for non-Black viewership. This is not to say non-Black people should not watch it, but that it is a movie that Black people can identify with and learn from; it feels like a film that is focused on confrontation with issues and growth rather than a film based solely on what would be most entertaining. This movie felt like therapy for the Black community.
I have chosen 4 characters to analyze and talk about but each and every character involved in this film is beautifully crafted and important to the lessons within the film.
Wendell's character comes into the film as quickly as he is, quite literally, thrown out of the film. Wendell represents a fundamental issue within the Black community. The idea that somehow success or wealth can help you transcend Blackness. His character does not start the film with the main ensemble but rather runs into them at a restaurant and asks to join the men on their journey to Washington. Despite initial skepticism, the bus driver and passengers decide to allow Wendell on the bus. Once on the bus, Wendell starts to criticize Black men, calling them lazy and unmotivated waiting for handouts. He boasts about his success as a car salesman crediting it to his hustle and hard work and saying that if he can do it then no one has any excuse. He uses the N-word to describe the men he's talking about, a group of men that he doesn't consider himself to be part of. He uses a word that historically demeans Black people and uses it as a weapon, as a barrier between him, a "successful" Black man and the "other", "lazy" Black men. When asked if he's heard of discrimination and racism in the work place, he says that they are not in slave times anymore and Black people need to be forward-thinking, not victim thinking and goes on to say that racism is a figment of Black people's imagination.
Wendell not only insults the entire Black community but he has deluded himself into thinking that he is immune to racism because he's managed to make a good living and that his success proves laziness and self-victimization in the entire Black community. Unfortunately, this character is not very exaggerated. I've personally met people like this and if you've been paying attention to pop culture, Shameek Moore and Trina are not really far off from this thought process.
Here is the problem with this thought process. Black success is beautiful. Black success is well-deserved and comes at a price of hard work and generational fight. But Black success happens in spite of racism, not because of the absence of racism (which is what the character Evan says in response to Wendell). Because a few Black people have succeeded or generated wealth, does not mean the world is fixed or that Black people are not still deeply struggling in this country. Furthermore, if you have achieved whatever success means to you as a Black person, that does not give you the right to put the rest of the community down. The "I worked for mine" mentality is toxic and does not promote growth or prosperity in our community.
Gary's character represents colorism within the Black community, as well as what it means to be "really" Black. Gary is a half Black and half white and of a lighter complexion but repeatedly tells the men on the bus, namely the character Flip, that he considers himself Black. He was raised by a white mother and that difference in upbringing also comes up in the film. His Blackness is constantly challenged because he is mixed. The character Flip also mentions that if they were in slave times, Gary would be in the house being pampered and enjoying the company of white women while the darker men on the bus would be working in the field with blistered hands.
Gary spends most of the film defending his Blackness to the other Black men on the bus. Highlighting another issue within the Black community: the idea that somehow being mixed with Black plus other ethnicity or races excludes you from the Black community. It's this idea of what makes someone "black enough" to be considered Black. What upbringing, spouse/significant other, neighborhood or job "makes" someone Black. Spike Lee is challenging this thought pattern and showing that the only thing that makes someone Black, is being Black.
The argument that Black people of a lighter complexion are somehow immune to racism is redundant and false. Slaves of lighter complexion were often closer in proximity to slave owners, actually putting them at danger simply because they were physically closer and therefore easier to abuse. House slave women were more likely to be raped by slave owners, house slaves were subject to being the punching bag for slave owners at a moment's notice, and were kept from their people while being forced to constantly watch in envy as their slave owners enjoyed their lives and families. The choosing of house slaves was not based solely on complexion but rather who the slave owner thought would be more easily assimilated into American culture and less likely to rebel; lighter skinned people were perceived as being "less African" therefore having less ties to their culture and less likely to fight letting it go. There is a lot to be learned about slaves and their different situations and I encourage you to go learn about them; here is a quick overview to get you started, although this post and link aren't even a water droplet on the tip of the iceberg and you should continue to look for more sources. Bringing up slave times as an argument of better treatment of lighter Black people just shows how alike all Black people are. All of our ancestors were stolen, owned and abused. A house slave was still a slave. Still stripped of identity and forced into labor. If the goal is freedom for all, then separating Black people into two categories, house slaves and field slaves, is divisive and counterproductive to progression.
This is not to say that colorism does not exist. There definitely exists privilege for lighter skinned Black people, especially for those who are "passing", but that privilege does not erase someone's Blackness. That privilege also does not protect lighter skinned Black people from prejudice or racism, racism that could even, and often does, come from their own family.
Colorism is society's preference of people of color with a lighter complexion rather than a darker complexion. It is rooted in racism and ignorance and is not only an American issue but rather a worldwide issue.
Kyle represents homophobia within the Black community. Spike Lee is addressing intersectionality of sexuality and race. Kyle starts the film being scared to admit to the other men on the bus that he is gay and by the end of the film, when asked if he's gay, he proudly says "yes". But throughout the film, he is called slurs, harassed and his place at the Million Mans March is questioned.
Homophobia exists in all cultures. Within the context of this film and The Million Mans March, homophobia serves as another divisive structure in the progression of Black people. You cannot say you care about the Black community (even as a Black person yourself) and exclude the LGBTQ+ community. Being gay, just like being mixed or your financial status, in no way affects or erases your Blackness. All throughout this country Black people in the LGBTQ+ community are ridiculed, abused and hunted by their own people.
Spike Lee recognizes this division and attempts to start a healthy conversation with Kyle's character. I think Kyle, and the other gay character Randall, start a great conversation but a film can only do so much to create lasting change and safe spaces. I encourage you to again educate yourself on the struggle within the LGBTQ+ community so you can understand that community, as well as its intersection with the Black community, better.
This manuscript shows research on the intersectionality of young, Black, gay and bisexual men, or YBGBM as they call it.
Evan Jr. aka "Smooth"
Smooth represents fatherhood in the Black community. He is the responsibility his father ran away from and as a product of that, rejects having any shared identity with his father. This is a perfect relationship dynamic to use in a film addressing concerns and issues of Black men.
According to this article, "about 50 percent of African American boys under age 17 live with a mother only, compared with 16 percent of their white counterparts. Research shows that children in fatherless homes are more likely to drop out of school, exhibit behavioral problems, end up in the criminal justice system, suffer unemployment, and are at a greater risk of substance and drug abuse."
The lack of fathers is, in part, due to the higher mortality rate of Black men but there is also a lack of responsibility taken on Black men's part when it comes to their children. This is one of the things Louis Farrakhan hoped to address and remedy with The Million Man March and one of the issues Spike Lee confronts with his film.
Evan Jr.'s insistence on being referred to as Smooth is a representation of not only teenage desire for autonomy but his attempt at creating his own identity, separate from his father. He is angry and hurt at his father's absence but he is also confused at his own growing from adolescence to adulthood. This growth is complex and children need all the help they can get. Research shows that children in a 2-parent home are more likely to develop a healthy sense of self and understand interpersonal relationships better, allowing them ti create more healthy relationships and professional networking. The film calls Black fathers to action, to take up responsibility for the children they helped bring into the world.
*Of course a 2-parent home does not always mean a 2-parent, cis gendered, heteronormative home.
This analysis is far from comprehensive but I hope it encourages you to you watch this film! Spike Lee does not simply list all the issues within the Black community. He uses a historic event to address issues in the every day language and treatment Black people use with each other in a way that doesn't condemn, but teaches. He is trying to have a real conversation about issues that people want to ignore because he understands the need for honesty in growth. This film does not solely criticize the Black community but provides a space for people to learn and evolve; to shift from these issues in order to address the real issue of racism. Spike Lee recognizes that there is strength in numbers and coming together as a people group rather than tearing each other down. There are more characters to be analyzed in this film and I hope you do go analyze them!
In 2020, how does this film apply to the recent protests of police brutality nation-wide?
Is Spike Lee's message to the Black community still relevant today?
Was The Million Mans March helpful or hurtful to the progression of the Black community?
I believe it's important for men, and as it applies to this film Black men, to have spaces where they can fellowship with others and feel safe to freely show emotion. From what I've read and videos I've watched, The Million Mans March seemed to accomplish that. But was this space exclusionary to women, and if it was, is that a bad thing?
Comment below with your answers or thoughts! Also feel free to email me or contact me on my Instagram account, @thevizionblog.