ARE we approaching a time when African-American movies will have as strong a presence on the culture scene as African-American music? World cinema has been dominated by whites since the beginning, and Hollywood has been no exception. Occasional black filmmakers such as Spencer Williams and Oscar Michaux have earned reputations with films aimed directly at the African-American community - the equivalent of ``race records'' aimed exclusively at black listeners - but the color line has held fast regarding major productions for general audiences.
This may be changing. Movies by Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, and Keenan Ivory Wayans have attracted attention from racially mixed critics and audiences. The trend may accelerate as Mr. Lee and writer/director Charles Burnett release ambitious new movies later this year.
African-American performers have also been widely applauded in such pictures as ``Driving Miss Daisy'' and ``Glory,'' and black musician Quincy Jones is the subject of a documentary due soon. These movies were made by white filmmakers, however, which lowers their importance in the eyes of some observers.
``You can tell what they want from blacks by the images they reward and put their dollars behind,'' writes novelist Ishmael Reed, referring to the white movie establishment, in a recent essay published by the Whitney Museum of American Art here. ``In 1940, Hollywood gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar for her role as a Mammy in `Gone With the Wind.' In 1990, Morgan Freeman was nominated for his role as a chauffeur in `Driving Miss Daisy.' Maybe 10 years from now another member of America's permanent household staff will pick up a little man....''
African-Americans have waged a long struggle for opportunities and recognition in the movie world, as shows at two New York museums recalled recently. The Museum of Modern Art presented films by Melvin Van Peebles, best known for the abrasive but highly respected ``Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song,'' and the Whitney saluted the late Bill Gunn by screening his rarely seen ``Ganja and Hess'' and other works. At their best, both filmmakers embody the kind of brilliant nonconformity that marks Mr. Reed's explosive fiction style.
It is symptomatic of Hollywood's attitude toward nonwhite filmmakers that such talents as Mr. Van Peebles and Mr. Gunn were able to launch but not sustain careers in the mainstream motion-picture world. Van Peebles did his most widely seen work during the early 1970s, at roughly the same time when a ``blaxploitation'' fad swept through American theaters, featuring black performers in stories charged with hyperbolic sex and violence, and usually directed by whites.
Although a movie like ``Sweet Sweetback'' can be seen as a proudly race-specific answer to that phenomenon, its limited popularity with racially mixed audiences can be attributed partly to the atmosphere that ``blaxploitation'' created - wherein black performers and themes were accepted, as long as they appeared in a context of down-and-dirty entertainment that presented no ideological challenges to middle-class white spectators. Van Peebles did present such challenges, but they could be conveniently overlooked by moviegoers who focused on the fast-paced and bluntly entertaining surface of his work.
Gunn's career ran up against even more problems. Although he achieved some success as an actor and screenwriter in white-controlled projects, Warner Bros. refused to release his own movie ``Stop'' in 1970, and his allegorical vampire film ``Ganja and Hess'' had virtually no exposure in theaters when it was completed three years later - despite high praise from some commentators, including author James Monaco, who called it ``the most complicated, intriguing, subtle, sophisticated, and passionate'' black film of its decade.
Other black filmmakers, such as Michael Schultz and Gordon Parks Sr. and Jr., reached wider audiences during the '60s and '70s but were eventually squeezed out of major status by white-dominated market and studio forces.
Enter the new generation of African-American filmmakers, launching a vigorous and imaginative assault on the longstanding color line. One of their main weapons is humor, used by Mr. Townsend in ``Hollywood Shuffle'' and by Mr. Wayans in ``I'm Gonna Git You Sucka'' to satirize Hollywood.
Mr. Lee is unquestionably the leader of the bunch, with a career that has reflected the versatility of his talent. His first feature, ``She's Gotta Have It,'' was a semicomic look at African-American life and love that refused to stereotype or idealize its young characters. His next picture, ``School Daze,'' used elements of the old-fashioned Hollywood musical to comment on discrimination and hypocrisy within the black community.
Lee's recent ``Do the Right Thing'' reached out to white as well as black audiences, raising moral and philosophical questions about black-white relations in two hours of ingeniously written and dazzlingly filmed comedy-drama. Perhaps the most important American film of the '80s, it opened up a new world of African-American cinema by speaking on its own terms to people of all colors.
It is uncertain whether Lee will duplicate the success of ``Do the Right Thing'' in his next picture, ``Mo' Better Blues,'' due later this summer. The story of a jazz musician played by Denzel Washington, it is expected to deal with certain difficult issues - including drug use - that ``Do the Right Thing'' sidestepped.
Supporters of black filmmaking also pin high hopes on ``To Sleep With Anger,'' due this fall from Mr. Burnett, whose earlier films (including the award-winning ``Killer of Sheep'' in 1977) have been independent projects made away from the Hollywood mainstream. It stars Danny Glover as a somewhat mysterious old friend who barges into the life of a middle-class Los Angeles family. The story focuses on African-American family issues, folk beliefs, and class relations.
Shown at this year's Cannes Film Festival, it was hailed by many as the work of a major talent, although it includes occasional moments of graceless filmmaking and heavy symbolism, which may draw criticism when the film reaches American theaters. It marks the arrival of Lee's most gifted competitor yet, and may signal another big step forward in the efforts of black cineastes to establish themselves in a white-run industry.
Just as important, it heralds the presence of a new talent capable of treating real people and their everyday problems with a seriousness - and sensitivity - that transcend the limitations of pop filmmaking and enter the domain of motion-picture art.