LOS ANGELES — WHEN the call came, Charles Burnett thought at first it was the Internal Revenue Service. "I was virtually penniless at the time," he says, remembering his reaction as one of raw suspicion.
After asking some leading questions, the voice on the telephone said that Mr. Burnett had just been awarded a $275,000 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship grant. No strings attached. "I said, sure, sure," he says now, laughing. A day later a letter came confirming the grant, which the foundation awards to creative people.
While the 1988 award recognized Burnett's previous efforts as a film director who happened to be from South Central Los Angeles, it was also a public signal. A serious black film director merited the kind of support not usually given to unknown blacks in the cloistered film industry.
Burnett went on to direct "To Sleep With Anger," a critically acclaimed film about a black working-class family in Los Angeles struggling to stay intact. It was released in 1990 and cost a modest $1.5 million to make. The movie won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah that year.
Now one of a growing number of black directors, including Spike Lee, Warrington Hudlin, John Singleton, and Bill Duke, who have battled the odds and made feature-length films during the last decade, Burnett knows that Hollywood functions the way no other place on earth does. "Hollywood is more inclined to want to copy success rather than break away to some new ground," he says.
"To Sleep In Anger" failed at the box office, Burnett says, partly because distribution of the film was mishandled and partly because the subject matter, compared with many other Hollywood films, was intellectually challenging.
"Audiences are so conditioned by Hollywood films," says Burnett, seated in a cafe at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, "that it's hard for them to relate to a film about character and theme. Little was done by the distributor to inform the black community about the content of the film."
When Burnett talks, his big hands are as active as his words. Too many frustrating encounters with producers and studio executives have left him wary of the glamour of Hollywood. "Films are a business here, first and last," he says.
Despite a smattering of young executives in studios who "went to school with Spike Lee," says Burnett, and are more accessible to black directors with potential film projects, he sees the culture of Hollywood as having changed very little over the last decade.
"Because of the usual subject matter and how it is treated in most Hollywood films," says Burnett, "it doesn't seem to make any difference if it's a black or white film; it's the same thing over and over again: drugs and car chases, and wall-to-wall rap. When the studios can get out of that bag, and do films that comment profoundly on people's lives, then better films will be made."
BURNETT graduated from the University of California-Los Angeles film school in l973. His first feature film, "Killer of Sheep," won a number of prizes including one at the Berlin International Film Festival. He has also been the recipient of grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Recently he received a Getty Fellowship from the J.P. Getty Foundation - a six-month salaried research fellowship with an office at the foundation in Malibu, C alif.
Somewhat exhausted by their experiences with producers and studio heads in Hollywood, Burnett and other black filmmakers are exploring ways to collaborate more closely on projects.
"We just made a proposal to PBS [the Public Broadcasting Service] for a six-part series," he says. "It's five directors from several ethnic groups, and we will do stories based on different characters in an L.A. mall during and after the riots. We want to do a kind of `Rashomon,' the classic Japanese film in which a single incident is viewed from several point of view. We're looking forward to working together."
"There is racism in Hollywood" Burnett says, "but [the film industry really is] all about power, and power corrupts. The power includes racism, but there can be black people in powerful positions and they are just as interested in exercising power [as white people are]. It's ego, and money, and absolutely crazy here. When you can make a movie like `Captain Hook' that costs almost $80 million - that's the budget of some third-world countries."
Although Spike Lee's film about Malcolm X failed to earn any nominations for major Oscars at the Academy Awards presentations March 29, Burnett thought it deserved nominations for best director, best picture, and best writing: "I think the film was Spike's best work. The fact that he didn't win [nominations in the top categories] could have been a reaction against Spike; people want to see him fail.
"But you've got to put it in perspective," Burnett adds with a grin. "You're not being shot at in Bosnia. You're making movies. You really can't complain."