The Lasting Relevance of “Get On The Bus”

The Lasting Relevance of “Get On The Bus”

By Unique Dowtin

Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus premiered on October 16, 1996, a date that commemorated the one-year anniversary of the Million Man March. The film is Lee’s love song to the spirit of the day that an estimated 837,000 black men descended on the Nation’s Capitol. Lee turned down studio financing and sought private investments from 15 prominent black men to fund the film. The film chronicles a group of black men as they journey from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. en route to the Million Man March. The group includes a biracial police officer, a braggadocious actor, a gay couple, a father and son who are literally shackled together, a Muslim former gangbanger, a student filmmaker and an elderly laid off aircraft worker to name a few.

As a reviewer, I am going to be impartial for a bit. I was a teenager in Maryland just thirty minutes south of the March in 1995. I remember the conversations that swirled around my predominantly black high school that fall as young men eagerly awaited that mid-October day. I also remember distinctly feeling like it was a party I was not invited to. As such, while I am generally a fan of Spike Lee’s work, Get on the Bus was never a movie that was on my radar. I am pretty sure I actively avoided the film. Watching the film in order to review it has changed my view of the film and perhaps the Million Man March itself.

get on the bus
The Million Man March

Two decades after its release, Get on the Bus is still relevant.”

No two people are alike. In storytelling, however, we accept tropes. Representation of African American men in film and television is narrow and there is usually only one black man or one kind of story being told. Lee and the film’s screenwriter, Reggie Rock Bythewood, allow a group of 15 black men to discuss, rage and embrace race, religion, politics, history, economics, homosexuality and love without confining what it means to be a black man in America. In many ways, that was what the Million Man March was – a community coming together to embrace and accept their differences in the face of a world that only views them as one entity.

Two decades after its release, Get on the Bus is still relevant. The discussions of race, politics and police brutality in the film still feel just as topical. The version of black masculinity that struck me the most in the film is the black gay couple. In 1996, when this film was released, gay characters were extremely limited and said characters were rarely shown on screen with partners. In context: Ellen DeGeneres did not come out until 1997, Will and Grace did not air until 1998 and Queer as Folk was not released until 2000.  The representation of two three-dimensional black gay men actively working on their relationship and not apologizing for being who they are in a movie directed, written and financed by 15 straight black men feels radical even by today’s standards.

Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus is the embodiment of “Representation Matters” because it explores the concepts of blackness and masculinity through the tropes Hollywood usually portrays and then subverts them by pulling the veil back and revealing truths beneath stereotypes.

Want more? Read our article exploring the continued relevance of “Set It Off”

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