Spike Lee gave himself only a year to put this movie up on the screen—from the day of the Million Man March to its first anniversary. He made it, but the editing is ragged and some two-shot scenes ignore continuity. Nevertheless, or maybe because of such touching errors of haste, Get on the Bus is rollicking, heartbreaking, troubling, and totally engrossing, the best thing Lee’s done since the stunning early promise of Do the Right Thing.

A movie about the march could easily have been an overstuffed exercise in sanctimony—sentimental and uplifting and hectoring, undoubtedly elegiac at the big moments. But Lee used up his Great Man flags in Malcolm X, where he was dealing with a great man; the Million Man March provides earthier fodder. Starting with the faceless multitude the name implies and leaving aside the problematic self-proclaimed leader who summoned them, Lee gives voice to a dozen or so regular guys who heard the call. The Black Community, we heard, came together for the march. Spike Lee seems to find that phrase exasperating and laughable, and Get on the Bus sets out to pull every thread from this tidy tapestry of front-page news.

Get on the Bus follows the conventional format of movies in which almost everything happens on one set (or in one setting), like Flight of the Phoenix or Das Boot. Most of the action takes place in the confines of the bus, and that action is almost entirely verbal, and intensely rhythmic. Interior shots are clear and solid; they have a look of tangible reality. Outside, the world gets grainy and unreal—it’s as if the men live in two realities: one in the context of each other, which they fully understand despite the myriad contradictions, and a vulnerable, slightly unreal existence elsewhere, where they find it as hard to focus as it is to be truly seen.

The Spotted Owl coach starts its journey in Los Angeles, where George (Charles S. Dutton, who looks as if he’s been a bus conductor all his life) ushers in the passengers, thrilled that he gets to attend the march, something his wife insisted on, without missing work. George has energy and good nature to spare, and it’s his working-class relish of this extraordinary journey that buoys the passengers when they start to flag—after all, the means necessary to attend the march already excludes many who would presumably benefit from it.

One of these is Evan (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), a sad-eyed man with a reflexively weak manner who has nowhere else to go. By court order, he’s literally chained to his difficult son, Evan Jr. (DeAundre Bonds), who, in a terrific running joke, wants to be called “Smooth” (but that’s the only thing he knows he wants for sure). The shackles cause a sensation on the bus—the other passengers are agog at the cruel ironies of our age, where the same system that purports to endorse a peaceful meeting of black men can insist that two of them to attend it in chains.

Andre Braugher’s Flip is a fast-talking, self-obsessed would-be actor whose recurring role on a sitcom gets him a little recognition, but only if he puts on the goofy, minstrel-show face that is apparently the character’s trademark—he plays a janitor. Gary (Roger Guenveur Smith) is a hunky, half-white buppie whose pale skin and uninflected speech perturb the other passengers, who pester him with the same questions he gets from whites—”What are you?” “Where are you from?”—to which he gives a rote answer that satisfies no one: “I consider myself black.”

Randall (Harry Lennix) and Kyle (Isaiah Washington) have broken up but are still traveling together; Xavier (Hill Harper), who wants to be known as “X” (the other passengers refuse to indulge him), is 19 and eager—he’s recording the trip for film school and for posterity. And Jamal (Gabriel Casseus) is a sweet-natured Muslim with a secret.

From the first, Lee makes clear that this isn’t—this cannot be—a film about solidarity. Looking like the middle-class success fallen off the ladder that he is, Jeremiah (Ossie Davis) climbs on for his last ride, greeting the others with a raised fist: “Black power, brother!” They think the old man’s stuck in the ’60s, little knowing how utterly disparate and ultimately irreconcilable their own definitions of black power are.

Each man assumes a commonality of intent on the part of the others; to a man, they are wrong. Randall and Kyle don’t even share an ideal version of the black gay man’s presence, or the same notion of his indebtedness to each community. Other passengers, most vocally Flip, don’t see what homosexuals have to do with black pride—he razzes them mercilessly, and you can see Randall’s anger recede into embarrassment that, while he doesn’t want a fight, he hates that his strained pacifism paints him as a conciliatory nelly.

The bus breaks down, and the black driver is sent back to L.A., when a new bus and driver come to the rescue. As ill-luck would have it, the new driver is a white Jew (Richard Belzer) who is uncomfortable ferrying people to a beckoning Farrakhan. After some wan attempts to defend his civil rights credentials—met appropriately with hoots—he grows exhausted and frustrated. Feeling pressured to prove himself worthy of the ride, he bags it in Little Rock, handing the keys over to George.

This interlude, while hardly revelatory, is valuable to the story, if only as contrast: The white man’s mere existence is a source of agitation; for the length of his accompaniment, the life of the bus revolves around him. Even if his reasons for leaving are selfish, they’re correct—this isn’t about him, and if the passengers won’t let him be himself (it is, after all, their outrage and teasing that make him say things like, “My parents had black people to dinner all the time”), neither are they free from the distraction of his presence.

They stop in Memphis, where an evening in a white bar is refreshingly free from stock movie menace—the cowboys pepper them with questions about Farrakhan and the purpose of the march. Later in Tennessee, fat, racist state troopers with a drug-sniffing dog do pay a visit, but most of the breaks in continuity are either more mundane or more perverse: At a rest stop in Arkansas, Flip and Gary vie for two pretty college girls; once the pressure becomes unbearable, they pull over to let Flip and Kyle have it out; Evan Jr., delirious at the idea of freedom, dashes away from the group without really wanting to go anywhere else.

In Memphis they pick up a bluff, cheery car salesman whose strident endorsement of capitalism at its coarsest riles the passengers and whose testimony to the value of Republicanism teases out like-minded conservatives among them. But he can’t get through a sentence without calling anyone and everyone a “nigger,” and when he announces he’s going to the march to sell some cars, Lee—and the audience—takes slow-motion delight in watching his ass get literally kicked off the bus.

But mostly the men raise their voices in discussion and song, and the variety of opinions, styles, and priorities is so stunning they don’t even need to disgustedly mention the Hollywood distortion of black male existence for the audience to realize that never does this cacophony reach the screen. They argue nonstop—what does it mean to be black and gay? Is that an either/or proposition? How much information does skin color carry? (“My girlfriend’s black,” says Gary, showing a snapshot of a straight-haired, eggshell-skinned girl.) Are the goals of black businessmen at odds with the goals of activists? Is racism responsible for inner-city troubles, or does destruction feed on hopelessness and irresponsibility? Does the figure of Louis Farrakhan taint, enrich, or even apply to the concerns of march attendees? What is the role of women in the so-called black community? And is there such a thing if we can’t agree on any of this?

Plenty also goes unspoken on this trip, although the patter, the arguing, the unknotting and balling up again of thorny questions is constant. But no one has the time or energy to comment on Flip’s subservient way of paying the rent, or says out loud to Gary that some folks are unable to “consider themselves” black. No one bothers the chinless Fruit of Islam type in the wee bow tie; he never speaks.

But the men direct their energy to a presumably receptive target: Evan Jr.’s young mind. He isn’t nonplussed by the echoes of slave bondage in his manacles and chained belt; his experience of the system is that it intends to humiliate and restrain him. History and its resonances are luxuries for folks with cushier lives. Even his dad—absent for years, a perfect lousy role model for his namesake—isn’t sure what it all means. (“We’re working it out,” he tells a shocked George as they board.) In a very funny scene, the men surround Evan Jr. and try to make him think about the gang life he’s dabbling in. A look of struggling bewilderment flits across his face—the scene is one long, tight closeup—when someone asks him if he steals from black people. “I’m black myself…” he begins, by way of explanation.

It doesn’t feel schematic while you’re watching—Reggie Rock Bythewood’s scabrous, intelligent, idiosyncratic script is too entertaining to push an agenda, even one of contradiction. But the film’s vision shifts like a kaleidoscope, shaping and then shaking up configurations, each of which can reasonably be said to typify the modern black man, and none of which tells the whole story. The climax has nothing to do with reaching the march, joining the throng, hearing the speeches. At the film’s end, the men realize that they’ve already had their march; they need no leader or historical site or special day to celebrate and struggle with themselves and each other.

Lee turns the notion of million-strong solidarity inside-out: He shows every way in which these men are different, as if trying to deny that there’s any thread that could possibly run through them all, bring them together. But he can’t, maybe for some reason as simple as the fact that they all showed up. The last image indicates that black men are still working for freedom, but Lee allows that word to have a different meaning for every single one of them.CP