Forever there will be Lena Horne, leaning against a pillar and going deep into her gut to sing "Stormy Weather." And, 41 years later, there's Lonette McKee drowning in the spotlight of "The Cotton Club" and crooning another ballad.

Not to be forgotten is Cicely Tyson, kerchief tight and lungs screaming, running down the road to Paul Winfield in "Sounder." Then, 13 years later, Whoopi Goldberg hurries down her long front path in "The Color Purple," first to greet the mailman and finally to run through the flowers to embrace her beloved sister.

Over the years, black actresses have delivered some powerful moments in the movies. They've made us cry, they've made us angry at them and their men, they've shown us the way. But look again -- these women are always the cheerful domestic, the long-suffering mother, the sex object, the faithful sidekick, the singer. And, sad to report, things aren't changing. What is worse, a review of this cinematic history shows that the number of creative moments is even smaller because the same scenes keep recurring. It's maddening, insulting and dangerous.

This all comes to mind once again because the Screen Actors Guild announced recently that things have never been better for black actresses. The sisters were cast in 10 percent of all female roles in major film and television projects in 1989, according to SAG. That's up from 8 percent in 1987 and 1988.

In recent weeks, the NAACP Beverly Hills/Hollywood branch has declared that the situation in Hollywood is so bad that the organization couldn't find enough actresses from last year's commercial films to salute a Best Actress for its annual Image Awards.

So which perception is right? If we're talking about drop-dead, breathtaking, let's-see-it-again-right-now performances from Hollywood, the NAACP is right. If we're only talking about roles, and mainly television, then SAG is statistically correct.

What happened to the openings we all hoped the dignified Claudia McNeil and daring Dorothy Dandridge had created years ago? Why is it that the industry can only embrace Cicely Tyson, Diana Ross and Alfre Woodard once? What happened to the talent that made "Roots" in 1977 and "Roots: The Next Generations" in 1979 and "The Color Purple" in 1986 and "The Women of Brewster Place" in 1989?

"Black actresses are a dying breed on the screen," says Sandra Evers-Manly, president of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood NAACP.

"This is the same climate that almost helped destroy Dorothy Dandridge," says director and choreographer Debbie Allen, referring to Hollywood's treatment of the star who in 1954 was the first black woman to win an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress. She was idolized, but became frustrated with her career and committed suicide in 1965.

Last year Whoopi Goldberg received the most exposure of any black actress, and so far all the honors. The NAACP honored her as a supporting actress for her role as the psychic in the runaway hit "Ghost." She also was nominated for a Golden Globe award as Best Supporting Actress for the same role. She addressed black actresses' plight in her speech during the NAACP ceremony, which was televised Jan. 11. "In terms of not having a Best Actress for this year, that will change," she said. "Don't let it worry you, because as soon as it starts to worry you time gets away from us and we find ourselves saying the same thing again. We're going to change it."

Besides Goldberg's appearance in "Ghost," Mary Alice, Vonetta McGee and Sheryl Lee Ralph appeared in "To Sleep With Anger," Denise Nicholas in "Ghost Dad," Joie Lee and Cynda Williams in "Mo' Better Blues," and Tisha Campbell and A.J. Johnson in "House Party."

The diminishing number of black female leads is a subject of continuous debate by actresses who want worthwhile work, by the critics and academicians who monitor the images of African Americans in American culture, and by those who fight racism in this country. Even though television has improved slightly in its portrayal and use of black actresses, movies haven't, and it's outrageous because this is one area where the negative images of minorities in America could be easily fixed. What happens if there is another generation of American children who know about minorities only from these narrow interpretations?

The main reason cited for the lack of progress is that the studios are controlled by multinational corporations and by white males who choose by the bottom line and define what a black person or black story is by their own experiences. The concept of nontraditional casting hasn't caught on. And there is still hesitancy to develop stories about a black family or a black romance, which in most cases would involve a black woman. Some of the negative attitudes of the studio heads have been hardened over the years by the backlash from black audiences when images are skewed.

In addition, African American filmmakers find it almost impossible to produce a major movie without support from the studios, particularly with distribution. And that's despite box office data that show African Americans make up as much as 35 percent of the moviegoing audience.

Out of Hollywood's limited vision comes the recycling of old ideas and scenes. Clyde Taylor, a film critic who teaches at Tufts University, calls it the "master narrative." First the white male is developed, then the black male sidekick, then the white female love interest and then a black woman confidant/maid. "In 'The Long Walk Home,' the re-coating of the Rosa Parks story, Sissy Spacek is in the foreground, the black woman is downgraded as a servant when in fact she is making history. That goes back to 'Imitation of Life,' " says Taylor.

"Black men and women are still only seen through the prism of comedy," adds Jannette Dates, associate dean of Howard University's school of communications and coauthor of a book on the media and African Americans. "White society is skeptical about looking at black lives honestly because it will revive all that guilt. Since that is the case you are going to have films that are not serious, and because of that fewer roles for black women."

A further complication is that Hollywood puts great store in the star system.

When Jacki Brown, a casting director, was co-producing a revival of "A Raisin in the Sun" in the mid-'80s, white producers suggested Richard Pryor for the role of the father. He was the black box office success of the time. He turned it down. The next year Eddie Murphy was hot, so the producers suggested him. "Then they wanted Lena Horne {for the mother} and I was thinking no, she's wrong, she's too elegant, and then she said no," says Brown. It took five years, years of blank stares at Danny Glover's name until "Lethal Weapon" made him marketable -- and acceptable.

These limitations have been bemoaned by every black actress. "Writers don't have the freeness of mind to see a woman -- especially a black woman -- with humor, sensuality, as someone with any rogue bitchiness, any complexity," said Woodard, a stunning actress whose appearances have included "Mandela" and "Miss Firecracker," and who won Emmys for roles in "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law."

Then there's the beauty dilemma. Since the beginning of movies, the physical look of a black actress has often determined her fate. The darker the skin, the more menial the occupation and the more suffering her character. "Sparkle," the 1976 story of a singing group in the late 1950s, was an exception. The creamy Lonette McKee got hooked on drugs and died early.

"The reality is, there is a white black standard -- the more homogenized your looks, the better your chances," says Jacki Brown, who has just finished casting three films with all male leads. She says the fair-skinned actresses are still first choice. "And the fair actresses still go through their ups and downs. ... Beauty comes in all spectrums. Mary Steenburgen was not considered a beauty at first."

To add insult to injury, there's ageism. And, truthfully, the women who emerged as leading actresses in the early 1970s are now 20 years older. Now Cicely Tyson and Rosalind Cash are almost always typecast as older women.

You would expect that some of these trends would have changed with the explosion of product from black male filmmakers in the last decade. There is employment in the films of Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, Reginald Hudlin, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Tony Brown and Bill Duke. Work, but little weight. Too often the actresses' characters are shadows of and accessories to the core story of male frustration and comic sociology. In "Harlem Nights," Eddie Murphy shoots Della Reese in the foot and murders Jasmine Guy.

"In a film like 'Mo' Better Blues' you had female characters, but I don't know if they were valued," says Jacquie Jones, editor of Black Film Review. Debbie Allen demurs from the talk that Lee demeans women in his films. "Spike Lee has done more for black women. In 'She's Gotta Have It,' she worked out her sexual thing. If I had made 'Mo' Better Blues,' it would have been different. But I haven't made a movie."

The difficulties of distribution for independent filmmakers and the rare recognition for their often credible and risky work have added to the perception that black actresses are disappearing.

Armond White, the arts editor and film critic of New York's The City Sun newspaper, says the NAACP adds to this perception. He says the statement it is trying to make backfires. "There are hard-working black actresses doing things. We should be seeking out these people. The NAACP's position is plain silly. One of the best performances by any actress was Josette Simon in 'Milk and Honey,' and the NAACP chose to ignore it," says White. Simon played a Jamaican nanny who migrated to Canada in the 1989 film.

Judging from the previews of this year's releases, black women will fare better. Lynn Whitfield promises to do an enlightening job in "The Jo Baker Story" for Home Box Office. "Daughters of the Dust" by independent filmmaker Julie Dash was shown last week at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Novella Nelson is the lead of Yvonne Rainer's "Privilege," which premiered at the New York Film Festival. And "Perfume," the story about a group of women running a cosmetics company, will be released soon.

This year's roster of films includes four from black male producers. Robert Townsend's next is "Five Heart Beats," the saga of a male singing group. Spike Lee's next is "Jungle Fever," about a romance between an Italian American woman and an African American man. Robin Givens stars in "Rage in Harlem" with Gregory Hines, Forrest Whitaker and Danny Glover. The director, Bill Duke, says he wanted "a black woman character who is gorgeous, intelligent, aggressive and about something -- a star character that celebrates the beauty of our women." Also, there's a second installment of "House Party" from Hudlin.

In the last five years, black actresses have had some memorable moments despite all the obstacles. Esther Rolle played a maid, but she sparred with Morgan Freeman in the poignant "Driving Miss Daisy." Mary Alice is in "Awakenings." C.C.H. Pounder was applauded for "Bagdad Cafe." Oprah Winfrey did "Native Son." And Ruby Dee was the windowsill sage of "Do the Right Thing."

But what is disappointing is that younger actresses are facing the same typecasting as the Pam Griers and Tamara Dobsons of 20 years ago.

In 1986, Cathy Tyson starred in "Mona Lisa" with Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins. Her portrayal of a London prostitute building her own business and searching for a young friend made for an interesting thriller. She had a powerful scene in which she snaps when Hoskins, a private investigator who becomes her chauffeur, finds a pornographic film of her. In the argument that ensues, Hoskins hits her. She lashes back, satin shoulderless gown notwithstanding, beating him with a whip and then crumpling in tears onto his shoulder.

"That was a throwback to 'the black women are exotic,' which I found interesting but disgusting. That primal character is used to show the dark side of the white hero," says Jacquie Jones.

Television's Lisa Bonet made her movie debut in "Angel Heart," one marked more by controversy than art. She was a 17-year-old voodoo princess. In a nude love scene Bonet and Mickey Rourke writhed on a bed, water dripping from the ceiling turning into blood flowing on the floor. Nothing more than the mysterious tease -- shades of "Scream, Blacula, Scream."

Gratefully, in the black women's archives we can find many moments.

There are the women of the Younger family -- Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee and Diana Sands in the 1961 adaptation of "A Raisin in the Sun," and Esther Rolle and Kim Yancey in the public television revival in 1989. When Diahann Carroll leaned back in the tub in "Claudine" and let out all those worries about all those kids and bills, you could feel the tensions go -- even if you didn't have James Earl Jones on the horizon. There was a different kind of sizzle in Sheila Frazier's love scene with Ron O'Neal in "Superfly," but Carroll infused the private moment with class.

Diana Ross was criticized for her audacity at playing Billie Holiday in "Lady Sings the Blues," but the scenes in which she squirms by the toilet and shoots up matched any histrionics of Susan Hayward. Besides, that might have been the only time we saw what her hair really looked like.

In "The Wiz," when Mabel King as Evillene storms down the factory aisle barking "Don't Bring Me No Bad News," it's wonderful. And when Ross, who starred as Dorothy, jumps on the table to celebrate the death of the witch and sings "Brand New Day," the 1978 story is not dated.

There is this scene from Woodard, who was nominated for an Oscar for her supporting role as a domestic in "Cross Creek": When her employer kicks out her boyfriend and assumes Geeche will go along, Woodard gets her back up. She says she's been betrayed, that life with Leroy is painful, he drinks up her paycheck. "On paper you might be real smart, but in life you have a lot to learn," she says.

In "To Sleep With Anger," Mary Alice sits at the dining room table. Her husband has been in bed for three weeks in a coma-like state. His church choir and his lodge brothers have prayed over him. One of his friends broaches the topic of how the lodge takes care of the widows and then launches into a "conditional proposal" in case Brother Gideon doesn't make it. Mary Alice rises from the table, her sweet brown canvas of a face charged with disgust. "Excuse Me. I have to go feed my dog," she says.

And then there's Whoopi. We feel compassion when she opens the door in the pouring rain in "The Color Purple" to find Danny Glover coming up the porch with Margaret Avery, who squeals, "You sure is ugly." Then anger that she has to make love via a computer in "Jumping Jack Flash." Then side-splitting laughter when she puts on that pink suit in "Ghost" and goes to the bank and takes the money, only to give it to two nuns on the sidewalk.

So, go to the bank, Whoopi, and let's hope some other sisters get to go with you.