The director's movies aren't actually that incendiary, but media's reception of Do the Right Thing 23 years ago created an unfair image that persists today: that of a reckless provocateur.
Spike Lee doesn't pop up all that often in his films anymore, which is one reason why his brief appearance in his new film Red Hook Summer is so surprising. The other is that he's carrying pizzas and sporting a "Sal's Famous Pizzeria" t-shirt, returning to the role of "Mookie" that he played in Do The Right Thing 23 summers ago. Lee has gone out of his way to insist that Red Hook, in limited release now, is "not a motherfucking sequel to Do the Right Thing," but the pictures are very hard to separate, and not merely because of Mookie's return. Red Hook has polarized audiences and critics in a manner reminiscent of its predecessor (albeit on a smaller scale). "Lee's latest rambles through almost two hours of unfocused drama, burdened with endless didactic editorializing, before lurching out of nowhere into ugly revelations and violence," wrote The Hollywood Reporter, a quote which could well have been pulled from a negative review of Do the Right Thing.
Do the Right Thing marked the beginning of Lee's ongoing tenure as a controversial public figure. Before it, Lee was often seen (to his displeasure) as a kind of "black Woody Allen": a New York-based independent filmmaker and sports fan, small in stature, who appeared in his own films. The first, She's Gotta Have It, was an examination and subversion of gender roles. The second, School Daze, concerned skin-tone prejudice—but solely among the black community. Lee was far from a rabble-rouser. Quite the contrary; had even cultivated a consumer-friendly public image via his "Mars Blackmon" Air Jordan ads. But with Do The Right Thing, and after it, Lee positioned himself as one of Hollywood's most outspoken and polarizing opinionators on the issue of race relations, with subsequent interviews and public feuds (with Clint Eastwood, Tyler Perry, Charlton Heston, and others) cultivating a popular image of him having no love lost for white folks. It's an image that persists today. Right-wing blogs like Human Rights and Newsbusters dub him, respectively, a "Hollywood hatemonger" and a "notorious racial grievancemonger." Town Hall granted that "he's finally easing up on crying 'racist,'" but writer Katie Hicks made sure to add, parenthetically, "Not about you, though. You're still racist." (A look at the comment sections for those posts indicates her facetiousness may be misplaced.)