Lee dealt directly with these incidents in his 1989 movie Do the Right Thing, but he took it a step farther by injecting Afrocentric pseudohistory and pseudoscience directed at Italian heritage and ancestry. Since then, he seems to have been trying to "get back" at Italians in many of his films, stereotyping them as dumb bigoted degenerates, and even showing hostility with his latest effort, Miracle at St. Anna, whose story is far removed from the racism of NYC Italian neighborhoods.
Italian-American groups are finally getting fed up and have begun calling him out on it. I don't agree with their protest against his public appearance. He has the right to deal with racism in his movies and portray whatever kinds of characters he wants, even to the point of distortion and obsession. What I take issue with is the argument he uses to defend himself and justify his actions:
During his speech, Lee read racist quotations from movies made by Italian-American directors such as The Godfather, Goodfellas, Casino and Saturday Night Fever — many which used the N-word. These films, Lee said, portrayed stereotypes or used racial slurs against African Americans. [...] Lee asked why it was acceptable for these Italian-American directors to have their characters portray race and racism in America while he is criticized for doing so.
That's a false analogy. Blacks barely figure in those movies at all, and the filmmakers don't stereotype them or have any anti-black, pro-Italian agenda. They merely include a few racist Italian characters, which means their criticism, like Lee's, is directed at Italians. They're acknowledging Italian racism, beating him to the punch by almost twenty years. The only difference is that those movies are actually good because the characterizations are much more subtle, whereas he hits you over the head with it.
Lee complains about "a double-standard being used against him", but he has that backwards. The simple fact is, Italian filmmakers would never be able to get away with doing to blacks what he does to Italians, and that's the only double standard here:
Italian American advocates are also justified in pointing out a double standard when it comes to the stereotyping of Italian Americans and other groups, particularly racial minorities, who have far greater purchase on the sympathies of good liberal people than do Italians. As The New York Times' Clyde Haberman observed, had a white director portrayed black residents of Harlem as drug- and sex-crazed louts and gangsters — which is exactly how Spike Lee depicted a working-class Italian American community in his egregious Summer of Sam — the outrage would have been immediate and unequivocal.
George De Stefano. An Offer We Can't Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America. New York: Faber & Faber, Inc., 2007.