Black liberation has long been hindered by Black masculinity. Too often, ideas about how Black people can improve their circumstances don’t benefit anyone who isn’t male and heterosexual. And while many Black men agree that they need to do better for the sake of Black people, there’s rarely agreement about the particulars. This reality is one of the driving themes of Spike Lee’s 1996 film, Get on the Bus, which dropped exactly one year after its source of inspiration: the Million Man March.
The movie follows a group of Black men who trek from South Central Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., for the events of October 16, 1995. Among them are Evan (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), who as part of a court order is literally shackled to the son he neglected (De’Aundre Bonds); Xavier (Hill Harper), an idealistic film student who’s documenting the trip; Flip (Andre Braugher), an obnoxious working actor; Gary (Roger Guenveur Smith), a self-righteous LAPD officer; Kyle (Isaiah Washington) and Randall (Harry Lennix), a couple whose relationship is in dire straits; and Jeremiah (Ossie Davis), the moral center who regrets not attending the March on Washington more than 30 years prior.
By the end of the film, it’s unclear whether the dial has moved for certain characters — but 24 years later, several of the societal issues those characters represent are still stuck in place.
While the Million Man March looms large in the film, it’s simply as backdrop; instead, Get on the Bus focuses on the interactions between the travelers. “People from all different socioeconomic, political backgrounds — which is a combustible mix,” Lee told Charlie Rose of the characters in 1996. Lee and writer Reggie Rock Bythewood depict the trip as a spiritual and emotional journey for the group based on the inevitable conflicts while they’re on the road. The characters represent a variety of issues and perspectives, some of which reveal a lingering resistance to change. By the end of the film, it’s unclear whether the dial has moved for certain characters — but 24 years later, several of the societal issues those characters represent are still stuck in place.
While the Million Man March may have been established in the spirit of progress, it wasn’t a progressive effort. Its organizer, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, is notorious for his sexism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. Yet, despite the conservatism at its core, the march stands as a significant display of unity. Given the circumstances at the time — the persistent fallout from the crack epidemic, the 1994 crime bill that led to a surge in mass incarceration, and the notion that Black men were “under attack” in general — many chose to overlook Farrakhan’s radioactive history in favor of the greater good for which he fought.
Some of the characters in Get on the Bus are willing to follow Farrakhan’s lead due to desperation. When Craig (Albert Hall), the original bus driver, tells trip organizer George (Charles S. Dutton) about his teenage daughter’s pregnancy, he acknowledges that he’ll be “all ears” if Farrakhan has a way to deal with the situation. It’s a shortsighted consideration, but Farrakhan and the NOI have long appealed to Black people who feel they’re out of options for whatever reason, so his outlook might catch the ear of a father who feels his daughter has strayed from the values he’d attempted to instill in her.
However, the idea that the overarching principle of the march was bigger than Farrakhan himself is also expressed in Get on the Bus. “I guess if the brothers are gettin’ together — you know, talkin’ about some things, tryin’ to work things out — I wanna be there,” Gary tells Xavier, who’s interviewing as many people as he can about their decision to attend the march. Gary is guided by the idea that anyone interested in the march is willing to put whatever differences they have aside, but that proves extremely difficult in an atmosphere of people with different backgrounds, lifestyles, and personality types.
Tensions arise within the group as its members get to know one another. Gary’s father, who was also a cop, was murdered by a gang member; when Jamal (Gabriel Casseus) reveals that he’s a reformed Crip who found Islam after committing several murders, Gary vows to put Jamal behind bars once they return to L.A. It doesn’t matter that Jamal works to prevent kids from making the mistakes he made — Gary only sees a murderer akin to his dad’s killer. Meanwhile, Flip serves as a consistently volatile presence throughout Get on the Bus. He craves attention, so when Flip isn’t questioning Gary’s Blackness (his mother is White), he’s name-dropping, overcompensating for his insecurity through misogyny, and being brazenly homophobic. He attacks Randall and Kyle, neither of whom back down. And when the confrontation turns physical, he falls victim to his own hubris.
You can’t call for empowerment without understanding that capitalism isn’t the solution. You can’t vow to do better by Black women, then not only fail to do so, but fail to understand why they don’t feel safe. And you can’t claim to want what’s best for Black people unless you want it for all Black people.
As reprehensible as Flip is at times, he’s far more tolerable than Wendell (Wendell Pierce), a car dealership owner who joins the bus in Memphis and then quickly draws the ire of the group. “Every brother ain’t righteous,” a skeptical George says of Wendell, a proud Black Republican who disparages HBCUs as “nigga schools” and rants about bootstrapping his way to success in between cigar puffs. Wendell, who sees the march as a massive networking opportunity, is an example of how capitalism can be a gateway drug to Republicanism, and his diatribe leads to him being forcefully removed from the bus.
The overall message isn’t subtle: On the way to atonement, these men confront several issues inhibiting progress for Black people as a whole. They don’t make it to the march, but the ordeal still provides a sense of fellowship. Before their journey home, George gives an impassioned speech about the real work beginning once they return. Alas, camaraderie doesn’t equate to evolution or progress. While attitudes on some issues presented in Get on the Bus have shifted slightly — especially across generational lines — many of the same conversations still take place regularly because of how deeply matters like capitalism, sexism, misogyny, and homophobia are embedded in society.
You can’t call for empowerment without understanding that capitalism isn’t the solution. You can’t vow to do better by Black women, then not only fail to do so, but fail to understand why they don’t feel safe. And you can’t claim to want what’s best for Black people unless you want it for all Black people. Some of these problems are structural and thus difficult to change in 25 years’ time — but others require more personal accountability, and genuine progress is impossible if accountability is treated like a prison.
Get on the Bus leaves viewers with the image of Evan Sr. and Evan Jr.’s shackles lying in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It’s a callback to the shackles, chains, and handcuffs seen at the beginning of the film, which imply that the experience has brought forth liberation, or at least the foundation for it. But with some distance from both the film and the Million Man March that inspired it, the state of the world suggests that in certain instances, the shackles remain in place — locked by the very hands they bind.