In 1989, a young director named Spike Lee, who had just a couple of films under his belt, put himself permanently on the map with an indie ensemble piece called Do the Right Thing. In 1991, a revered horror director named Wes Craven whose career was starting to look like it was in need of revival put out a haunted house film with a twist called The People Under the Stairs.
One film ignited a firestorm of debate and garnered mounds of attention, rocketing its director into the stratosphere. The other came and went with nary a whimper and probably helped play into the “Wes Craven is back!” sentiment that ran rampant when he put out Scream in 1996. Is Do the Right Thing really that much better of a film than The People Under the Stairs, or is this just a case of right subject matter, right time?
What do they have in common?
Both of these films feature young protagonists who find themselves hopeless and adrift in lower class ethnic communities. In Do the Right Thing, we follow shiftless pizza delivery boy Mookie (Lee himself) and in The People Under the Stairs, the just-coming-of-age Fool (Brandon Adams, cake eater). In both films racial tensions are running high and dark skinned folk are feeling marginalized by lighter skinned oppressors who control the majority of the community’s wealth. Eventually tensions reach a boiling point, and each film finds their young protagonists in the middle of and catalysts for a violent revolt against the ruling class. They’re pretty much exactly the same movie.
Why is Do the Right Thing overrated?
Do the Right Thing introduces us to a cartoon world that seems like it would be more of a home to Roger Rabbit than it would be to any character that is supposed to accurately represent our nation’s youth or make poignant commentary on real life social issues. The streets are bright and colorful, devoid of the trash, drugs, and crime that lower class neighborhoods breed. This version of Brooklyn is pulsating and alive, but it’s not an accurate representation of any neighborhood that exists in reality. This Brooklyn is a fantasy world, full of one-dimensional characters named things like Da Mayor, Radio Raheem, and Buggin Out. There are a group of old guys who are acting as stand-ins for Statler and Waldorf, Samuel L. Jackson practically plays a disembodied narrator, and Ossie Davis is the conscience of the community. Each of these characters is more storytelling trope than human being. Lee creates a world that works great for fetishizing urban culture, but it doesn’t lend itself too readily to making statements about real world issues. Unfortunately, that’s exactly where Do the Right Thing goes. And it doesn’t hold the fantastic up as allegory for social quandaries like the sci-fi genre does, it just asks us to take this fairy tale at face value. What you’re left with is a film that tries to make a hot button issue out of the death of a character whose first name is Radio.
That wouldn’t be a problem if Radio or anyone else felt like real human beings, but what we get instead is a group of caricatures whose motivations change on a dime depending on what the conversation of the moment is. Is Danny Aiello’s character a longtime member of the community who appreciates his loyal black customer base, or is he a bigot who resents every dark skinned person who walks through his door? I can show you scenes from the movie that effectively prove both. People contain multitudes, sure, but the characters of this film are just bi-polar. I think the problem is in the intent. Do the Right Thing is a movie that wants to provoke rather than preach. It stirs the racial pot, raises a bunch of controversial questions – but it offers no answers. As a matter of fact, it seems only interested in very obstinately disproving any message that you might want to attach to the film. It ends with contrary quotes about violent protest from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, for the love of Mike. If you’re going to make a movie that delves into complex issues that affect the world we live in, then you could at least have some wisdom to impart. With Do the Right Thing, Lee comes off as a child poking a bee hive with a stick.
Why is The People Under the Stairsunderpraised?
Fool is definitely no Mookie. He is not a lazy kid who doesn’t take his job or the responsibilities he has to his family seriously. This is a kid who is making tough choices for the good of those around him. Yeah, both Fool and Mookie make bad choices, they both become morally compromised; but Fool feels like he has no choice in the matter, he turns to criminal acts to help support his family. Mookie is just lashing out because he’s young and angry and confused, and rather than being relatable, he comes off as a young punk that you want to take by the collar and shake. While Mookie lives in a fairy tale version of Brooklyn, Fool lives in a dystopian world filled with drugs, crime, and squalor. Fool’s family is starving, Mookie’s is surrounded by pizza.
Because of this, Fool’s assault on his landlords is a story that is way more affecting than Mookie’s throwing of a garbage can through his employer’s window. The white people in The People Under the Stairs own half of the buildings in the ghetto, are watching as they fall apart, and are doing everything in their power to bleed the neighborhood dry. This is the real “power” that Public Enemy says we should be fighting. In Do the Right Thing, the young characters are just ignorantly lashing out against small business owners. Spike Lee hedges his bets by making everyone in his film equally misguided and contemptible. Wes Craven has the gumption to stand up and say that the white man is the devil. The characters in Do the Right Thing sit around and wonder where a Korean family finds the money to open a business, the characters of The People Under the Stairs blow up a house and find all of their community’s missing money down in a vault. Which story would you rather go see at the cinema? I’d rather check out the one that introduces me to lower class characters that I care about, characters that get me thinking about how charitable I fail to be in my day to day life. Not the one that makes me think that people are all destructive and corrupt.
Evening the odds.
While I admit that Do the Right Thing does a lot of things right and sees Spike Lee at the peak of his directorial powers, I would also argue that it’s a movie with a bunch of bad acting. About eighty percent of the movie is closeups on people as they unconvincingly yell things. Except for Ossie Davis; Davis’ Mayor character is the one likable fellow who I felt like I could really root for in that film, and he tackles the role with his usual unmatched class and skill. Ossie Davis would probably be the one thing that I would say unequivocally puts Do the Right Thing in a class above The People Under the Stairs. Except for one fact: The People Under the Stairs has the guy who ate too much peanut butter in the Aaron Burr “Got Milk?” ad. Okay, Roach was pretty cool, but that was kind of a joke. Let’s just say that The People Under the Stairs counters Ossie Davis with a healthy heaping of Bill Cobbs. There aren’t many actors out there that can do wise old grandpa nearly as well as Bill Cobbs.