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"Get on the Bus" is the echo of the Million Man March. Coming to theaters exactly one year after hundreds of thousands of black American men spent a day of atonement together, the movie doesn't document the event. It shouts it, recharges it, continues the call.

It's worth listening to.

This is a story about motivation and real people. The controversial Nation of Islam preacher Louis Farrakhan -- talked about but barely seen -- is mentioned less as a leader than as a catalyst. What director Spike Lee wants to tell us is why so many black men made the decision to go to Washington, D.C., in 1995.

So Lee puts them on a bus. As they travel from Los Angeles into what they hope will be history, the characters are answering individual calls to reassert their responsibility.

The journey starts with an energy that reflects the men's enthusiasm -- screenwriter Reggie Rock Bythewood's dialogue is tight, funny, and sharp enough to be pointed when it counts. He pulls no punches and takes no prisoners.

Even with their common purpose, the men begin at once to focus on their differences.

"If you don't mind my asking," a young actor (Andre Braugher) says provocatively to the tan man in a nearby seat, "are you mulatto, or just light-skinned?"

"Biracial," comes the response, with a white mother and a black cop father, who was murdered -- by a brother.

Old Jeremiah (Ossie Davis), who never forgave himself for missing the 1963 March on Washington, says, "I'm looking for a miracle at the Mall." At his stage in life, he needs one.

Meanwhile, two men who boarded together argue, and one shouts, "Tell me you're not man enough to say you love me!"

Just like that, a dozen would-be marchers find their own prejudices tested, by age, homosexuality, racial mixing. There will be more to come. Two riders, a father and son, are tethered together with chains, under court order not to be separated. When talking about what got him into this fix, Junior squirms trying to justify his crimes against black people with his professed respect for his race.

A college student, who goes by the name "X," documents the trip on video -- practice for a filmmaking career that will avoid the overdone themes of rap, rape, rob and riot. Dubbed "Spike Lee Jr.," he finds unexpected answers when he asks the other passengers why they are making the trip.

The real answer, and the answer to why Lee, Bythewood, producer Reuben Cannon and the "15 Black Men" who put up production money, comes in one short, angry exchange:

Aiming his fury at a white Jewish bus driver, a passenger ticks off his people's history of long oppression, with a final, rhetorical question, "After 400 years, we're supposed to fix it ourselves?," only to be answered by George, a black man:

"Yes!" George shouts. "Who else is gonna do it?"

There are many miles of highway between California and Washington. The men make music, they fight, they talk about life, love, sex, being black, not being white.

The closer the bus gets to Washington, though, the less innovative the dialogue becomes. After introducing these fascinating people, with all their varied problems and gifts, there's a hurry-up sense of racing to the finish.

The conversation intensifies and takes on an attitude of self-justification. Even before they reach their goal, the men have a strong sense of the problems that separate them, that are keeping them from succeeding. For them, the ride, not the march, is what counts.

What few resolutions there are as the movie winds down have the ring of convenience to them. But easy resolutions don't matter. What matters are the ongoing lives and actions that are yet to be resolved. What matters, "Get On the Bus" is screaming, is the personal journey to freedom.

"Get On the Bus" will say different things to different people, depending on the skin color, the gender and the age they wear into the movie theater. A black man's sense of himself will never be the same as a white man's, or a black woman's or white woman's, for that matter. But it won't belong to any other black man, either.

What this movie is saying is, we're all born with a ticket to ride. The seat we get is up to us.

Get On the Bus

Rating:*** 1/2 Bus riders going from Los An geles to the Million Man March share their experiences as black men. Starring Ossie Davis, Andre Braugher and Charles S. Dutton. Directed by Spike Lee. Rated R, opening today in area movie theaters.

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