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To the Front of the Bus

Charles S. Dutton & Albert Hall
Lester Sloan

Drive, He Said: Charles S. Dutton (left) gives directions to Albert Hall in Spike Lee's film about the Million Man March, "Get on the Bus."

Roger Smith talks about riding the movie bus with Spike Lee and company

By Nicky Baxter

LIKE A FEW million other black men, actor Roger Smith didn't make it to the Million Man March on Washington last year. He was here in the Bay Area, teaching a class at UC­Berkeley. But when director Spike Lee showed up the following spring with a script about the march, Smith eagerly signed on.

Over the phone, Smith discussed Lee's latest film, Get on the Bus, which opened Oct. 16, one year to the day after the march grabbed national headlines. The title refers to the long ride across country that the movie's disparate characters make in order to participate in the march. Smith, who has had roles in four of Lee's joints and plays an embittered cop in Get on the Bus, wears his loyalty to the scrappy auteur like imported kente cloth.

"The film is important because it's Spike's 10th film in 10 years," Smith says. "He's the preeminent independent filmmaker in this country. It's also important because it documents a signal event that occurred a year ago." Perhaps the most significant aspect of the film, reckons Smith, is that Get on the Bus was "very much created in the spirit of the march. It was not just about the march; the movie was itself inspired by the march."

Smith is convinced the picture is proof that the event was not all talk and no show: 15 African-American men financed the project; guess how many brothers board the bus in L.A.'s South Central for the pilgrimage to Washington in the film?

Get on the Bus

Given its modest budget and time constraints, that Get on the Bus got made at all is something of a minor miracle. The Million Man March jammed up D.C. in mid October; by the following February, Lee had a working script. The film was shot in an 18-day period during April and May in L.A., Virginia, Tennessee and Washington, D.C.

Working on the road for close to three weeks was quite an experience, Smith says. "It was very ... intense," the soft-spoken actor allows, "almost like boot camp. But it was almost spiritual, too. ... To wind up in at the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King spoke was very special."

Special, too, is the acting ensemble Lee assembled for the film. Black film's grand old man, Ossie Davis, is particularly poignant as a man who has kowtowed to white folks all his life only to find himself down and out and, as it turns out, dying. Charles S. Dutton's role as a level-headed bus driver fits him like a glove; the former star and executive producer of Fox television's Roc deserves wider recognition.

The movie delivers a singularly bumpy ride; there's plenty of dissension, discord and straight-up dissin' among these 15 brothers. In an attempt to reflect post-MMM realpolitiks, Get on the Bus offers no quick and simple solutions to fix the mess blackfolk are in, but like the event it circuitously documents, Get on the Bus is a trip well worth taking.

Get on the Bus (R; 122 min.), directed by Spike Lee, written by Reggie Rock Bythewood, photographed by Elliot Davis and starring Ossie Davis and Charles S. Dutton.

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From the October 17-23, 1996 issue of Metro

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