Politics & Society

How Spike Lee’s ‘Bus’ Trumped The Million Man March

'Get On The Bus' (1996)
40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks

Saturday marks the 15th anniversary of the Million Man March, an event immortalized in film by director Spike Lee's "Get on the Bus." The movie is about a group of African-American men who take a bus trip to the march in Washington, D.C. from Los Angeles and what men on the bus learn about themselves and each other along the way. It's a good story, well told, with more to say than the actual march itself. How do I know? I went to the march, and I remember it well.

In 1995, crime was up, jobs were down and black men were right in the middle of what I like to call the Exhale Years, a movement when many books and films stirred conversation about the perceived perpetual failure of black manhood. The movement possibly started with film director Steven Spielberg's adaption of the book "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker, then picked up steam with film director Julie Dash's heartbreaking "Daughters of the Dust," peaked with the (1995) film adaptation of “Waiting to Exhale” based on author Terry McMillan's (1992) novel, and ending somewhere around Kasi Lemmon's  "Eve's Bayou" (1997).

The Internet was young in those days, so men mainly got wind of the march through church, their favorite watering hole or the barbershop, which is where I first heard about it. I remember the conversation about the march vividly; no one knew what to make of it. Despite the reverent theme of atonement, some brothers asked aloud if it would be a huge bacchanalian free-for-all — like Freaknik. Others thought it would be the defining moment of our generation. And then there were those who just opted out, like my dad and his dad. At 25, I thought I had an obligation to go just to represent the men in the family. So, like a lot of young men, I got on the bus on a rainy Saturday morning, not sure what kind of party I'd been invited to.

My bus had a mixture of young and old heads on board. There was some singing, a lot of debating, but no violence. Cursing was not allowed on the bus, and at least one person was taken to task for firing up a joint (we may not have known what kind of party it was, but we knew it wasn't that kind of party). We were all bracing for a life-changing experience, but when we got to D.C., there was no itinerary; we were on our own. A group of us wandered the grounds, peeping at the wonder of thousands of black men gathered for purposes that were not clear. We were amazed at the number of vendors, police officers, and young black women in tight pants and short skirts interspersed among the throngs. There was a lot of pontificating, a virtual passing of the hat, but it all came and went pretty quickly — beyond the pledge, there was no emblematic moment, no view from the mountaintop. Aside from the spectacle, it was largely a disposable event.

Lee's "Get on the Bus" necessarily romanticizes a moment in history with very little THERE there. The thin script holds together with some great moments from actors Charles S. Dutton, Ossie Davis and the completely underrated Roger Guenveur Smith.  All in all, the film, with themes about generation shifts, homophobia and regional racism, is arguably more impactful than the event it dramatizes.

Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist for TheRoot.com, an author and a regular contributor to Tell Me More.

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