The most overlooked film in his catalogue, this story of a bus ride from L.A. to D.C. makes for some of the most powerful writing that’s ever been put on screen. The passengers are all strangers to one another and the destination is the Million Man March, thus as one would expect the plot is heavy and socially conscious, though where it effortlessly finds its entertainment value is what makes this film more than just a glorified lecture. All the same this film not only has something to say, but it has a lot to say, and every word is arguable and debatable while right and wrong all at the same damn time. However as the majority of the screen time devotes itself to a long strenuous road trip, the film substitutes Hollywood thrills for material more likely found at a Broadway show. Yet that same material is so heavy hitting that it’s the only action that’s necessary, to ultimately feel every heartfelt emotion known to fellow man if not to all of mankind.
As the men embark on their journey it becomes clear that this will be a bumpy ride, as these men are going to the same place but apparently few of them for the same reasons. As ideologies, backgrounds, orientations, and political views clash it seems that despite race these men have nothing in common, thus while the honorable Minister Farrakhan has assembled a million black men to come together on the nation’s steps, there’s an uncertainty on whether this small number of black men on the bus share enough goodwill to join them. Essentially the passion behind every opinion and the intensity of every spoken word hits like Tyson vs Holyfield, and not a man gets off this ride without their lip bloodied, character questioned, or name dragged through the mud. In many ways Lee transforms the Spotted Owl into a moving stage like few directors could, and likewise the writers and the actors flourish by creating theatre out of a subject matter that’s rarely displayed quite as genuine or honest.
The performances in this ensemble piece are really downright remarkable, as every character finds a way to stand out on their own, all beautifully flawed yet equally important to the critical discussion on how to make it when the odds seem stacked against you. Yet as the dialogue so eloquently illustrates not every character is in agreement with what the ‘plight of the black man’ truly is, a refreshing and realistic portrayal of an otherwise misrepresented population that is often generalized and not shown in every dimension. There is arrogance and charisma in characters played by Andre Braugher and Wendell Pierce, and by contrast there is respect and decency found in roles depicted by Isaiah Washington and Harry J. Lennix, the latter of whom also happen to be ex lovers which inevitably adds further material to delineate on. For example when Washington is asked “what role the gay man plays in the black community,” he cunningly answers with another question by asking the straight man “what’s yours?”
Furthermore there are democrats and republicans, the affluent and the destitute, former gang members and police officers, and a young bright eyed UCLA film student who is there to film it all. The disclosures through the lens of the video camera is a nice touch and gives the film perspective, while adding a sense of realism and vulnerability to these men not only searching for meaning in their own lives, but desperate as well to know where they stand as a community by making this statement together. The late Ossie Davis plays the oldest man on the bus well-versed in his roots and his history, and his vested interest in a hopeful future is indicative of what the march was all about. Yet on the same bus there’s a father and son adjoined by shackles due to a court order for a minor crime, a powerful and disturbing visual for a nation of people trying to uplift themselves from the haunting memory of that same unforgettable image. However there’s also a rock on this bus, one that won’t be moved by any conflict or division, but instead Charles S. Dutton provides a voice of reason, a steady hand, and the perseverance needed to deliver these men to a place that for one day just might feel like the promised land.
In regards to memorable scenes there’s honestly too many to name, as every singular moment makes a powerful impact enough to inevitably make the audience think like they hadn’t before. As controversial and inflammatory as some of the statements may be, the writing is clever enough to somehow find credence in every word, and ultimately each side of every issue is deliberated on and represented without any agenda to name. Even Farrakhan himself is up for discussion, and in the spirit of any great debate the film doesn’t look to find any solutions that are absolute, yet its hope is to at least influence those that are listening to walk away with an open mind. It’s a great misfortune that outside of Lee’s core audience however, the rest of the world didn’t seem to pay enough attention to even have an opinion on the matter, as the film has been left in relative obscurity in comparison to his other works that were either loved or hated. Also under the radar is a beautiful yet rare song in the opening credits sung by Michael Jackson, one that was omitted from the soundtrack for reasons I’m unaware of, perhaps symbolic of how the film was destined to be so peculiarly unknown. Nonetheless it remains a hidden gem in his catalogue and I’ll always refer to it as his ‘Hitchcock’ joint, a reference anybody who loves classic films would appreciate and understand.