The traditional verite-activist-political-documentary genre gets a workout in “Bus Riders Union,” a pertinent but rather overdrawn look at the grass-roots movement to force improvements in the woeful Los Angeles public transportation system. Specificity and local nature of issue will restrict interest to particular urban and political groups, although in a broader sense it will appeal to audiences who will be pleased to see that ’60s-style protest and agitation not only still exists but can still produce results. Video and specialized TV slots beckon.
Nearly all of master cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s films have centered on liberal-left social causes, and this one comes around full circle to his first docu, the 1965 “The Bus,” about a cross-country trip to a civil rights march in Washington, D.C. New effort spotlights the mostly minority working class forced to take buses in the world capital of car culture, and how poorly the civic government and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority meet its needs.
Against the backdrop of the city’s boondoggle with its obscenely over-budget and marginally useful subway construction, pic focuses upon the small band of activists fighting on behalf of riders faced with lousy service, dirty, crowded and unreliable buses, rising fares and the threat of curtailed passes. Film dawdles unnecessarily in elaborating the neediness of the wheel-less crowd, and its evident acceptance of the belief that racism is the motivating factor behind inadequate public transportation seems specious and doctrinaire (are cities with excellent service somehow not racist by this theory?).
But the driving forces behind the self-appointed “union” rep a colorful mix of pragmatic young optimists, graying ’60s radicals, ordinary working folk and the occasional wacko, and docu picks up steam as it rolls from 1996, when a consent decree came down OKing the purchase of new buses, through a series of contentious MTA board meetings over the next two years, during which time no improvements were implemented. Showdowns between union leaders and Mayor Richard Riordan are particularly interesting, and upbeat ending, while not exactly reflecting a total victory over the wasteful priorities of the government, nonetheless suggests that all the sweat and strategizing and legwork was worth it, and that David can still sometimes slay Goliath in the American political system.
Committed, subjective and impressionistic, pic harks back to ’60s and ’70s docus in its verite techniques. For relatively impartial viewers in places distant from the problems on display, the primary question raised will probably be that of how the city of L.A. could allow the situation to get so bad, how such an elementary component of urban life could have been ignored for so long. The answer would have to be found in a much more comprehensive, disciplined and historical study.