After a scattershot run of able, but imperfect, pics, Spike Lee has hit his true form once more with an immensely likeable road piece. The meshing here of material, director and cast is near perfect, lending Get On The Bus a confidence and vigour a good deal more compelling than the inconsistencies of his recent work.
The premise is simple: a group of black men travel across the US to join hundreds of thousands also drawn by the Nation Of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. But although they set off euphoric at their involvement in this momentous occasion, the bunch's camaraderie and hopeful spirits soon give way to tension and anger as personalities and opinions clash. Spending three days in cramped conditions with strangers isn't easy at the best of times, but add minority politics and the tempers will fly. Eventually this mixed bag are hit with the hurtful fact that the only thing they have in common is the colour of their skin.
It's fair comment that the selection of characters Lee and first-time screenwriter Reggie Rock Bythewood acquaint us with are too satisfyingly varied and well-defined. Among the nosiest are worldly-wise old git (Ossie Davies), a father literally shackled to his son because of a court order, a light-skinned cop (Roger Guenveur Smith) and a gay pair antagonised by a homophobic actor (André Braugher). All can see each other's points of view too easily, but literal realism isn't the name of the game here.
Instead, Lee carefully crafts a series of conflicts and debates, dissecting issues of race and bigotry (we wouldn't have a film if everyone sat quietly reading books and listening to personal stereos). But, while all this discussion is intermittently stagey, his delicate handling of such rounded, multi-layered and exceptionally well-portrayed characters ensures that the film's moral dimension never swamps the narrative and distracts the audience.
This isn't a preachy film, but a punchy and witty one, packed full of snappy and passionate dialogue delivered by a superb ensemble cast of actors. Fans of great TV cop show Homicide will be delighted to see two of their favourite stars shining: André Braugher (Detective Pembleton), fantastic on the big screen as well as the small, and ex-stand up Richard Belzer (who portrays Detective Munch) is likewise wonderful as a white bus driver.
That the film is set almost entirely on a bus brings us face-to-face with each of the characters and emphasises their nuances and subtleties with every performance. The end product is dramatic, and while confrontational, is never claustrophobic.
Get On The Bus is thought-provoking and entertaining. It's small in scale, big on heart and Lee's best picture since Do The Right Thing. Grab a seat.