ROBERT TOWNSEND'S box office success this winter with "Hollywood Shuffle" and Spike Lee's a year earlier with "She's Gotta Have It" gave new hope to black filmmakers hamstrung by problems of financing and distribution.

As Lee put it shortly after the premiere of his film at the 1986 San Francisco International Film Festival, "if this film is a hit, all the major studios are going to be looking for black filmmakers."

Unfortunately for the black audience hungry for new images of itself, Lee's pronouncement has yet to be borne out. As time goes on, the isolated successes of "She's Gotta Have It" and "Hollywood Shuffle" begin to look more and more like a kind of failure.

Months after "She's Gotta Have It" brought black film to the nation's attention, there has been no discernible rush by Hollywood studios to hire black producers, directors and writers. The best black filmmakers (and despite their undeniable talent, the irony is that neither Lee nor Townsend can be counted among them) continue to struggle for production money and then find themselves excluded from traditional distribution channels. Meanwhile, the black audience's desire to see itself reflected whole on movie and television screens goes unsatisfied; mainstream producers remain loath to depict black reality and black concerns fairly and accurately.

All of this is sad evidence not only of Hollywood's racism, but of something equally damning -- the industry's appalling failure of imagination. For while it may seem in the 1980s that black actors and actresses are getting more and different roles, many of those roles are demeaning and disappointing variations on stereotypes that have always been present in American popular culture.

In 1980, the Screen Actors Guild began requiring movie and television producers to report quarterly the race, gender and age of performers hired. Since then, it consistently has found that black and minority performers combined get less than 10 percent of the lead roles in both movies and tele-vision. Moreover, one SAG official emphasized, "a disproportionately high" number of blacks, Hispanics and other minorities regularly are cast as pimps, prostitutes and/or various sorts of criminals.

A more specific assessment of minority roles comes from a recent study sponsored by the Center for the Study of Social and Political Change at Smith College and the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA). The study, based on a sample of 620 television shows from 1955 to 1986, concluded that the number of black characters has increased -- from less than 1 percent of all roles in the 1950s to nearly 10 percent since 1975 -- and that in general black characters are being portrayed more positively. But it also found that over the period studied, "whites have portrayed 94 percent of the educated professionals and business executives {and} blacks have played 5 percent." In addition black characters were only half as likely to have high school educations and middle-class incomes as whites. (Hispanics, who played 2 percent of all roles, fared even worse, making up only 1 percent of professionals and executives and committing "more murders and violent crimes than blacks.")

There are more positive and sympathetic portrayals of blacks in the movies and on television in the 1980s -- "The Cosby Show," which is centered around a warm, happy, loving family that happens to be black, is the best-known example. But blacks continue to be stereotyped as exotics, as objects of laughter or fear.

Thus, in addition to the Huxtables -- the kind of family most of us would like to have been born in -- there are also the criminals on shows such as "The Equalizer." (Dismayingly often, these are hulking, street-wise black men who terrorize frail white women -- two sets of images with direct correspondence to the villainous freed slaves and noble, virginal mistresses of D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation"). There is the swaggering loadmouth George Jefferson, and his domineering wife, Isabel, on "The Jeffersons" (an updated "Amos and Andy"). And a recent episode of "Amen" offered the spectacle of Nell Carter (a "mammy" for the '80s in "Different Strokes") wrestling Sherman Hemsley.

In the movies, blacks are most often smaller than life, minor characters whose presence has little impact on the plot and whose lives do not interact with the lives of the white characters around them. They are, moreover, walking cliche's. One thinks of the genial, overweight school nurse (another "mammy" stereotype) in John Hughes' "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," or of Lisa Bonet, the "tragic mulatto" of "Angel Heart," whose bloody end can be seen as the traditional payment for having dared to sleep with a white man.

The favored role for black men in the movies is that of the buddy, sometimes merely a variation on the relationship between Huck and Jim in Twain's "Huckleberry Finn." (Consider the bluesman and his young white initiate in Walter Hill's "Crossroads.") Other variations allow the illusion of equality, while preserving the reality of separation. In "Running Scared," a shoot-'em-up comedy starring Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal as a pair of Chicago police detectives, the partnership seems one of equals until the final act of the film where Crystal's character rescues his wife (who has been kidnapped by a Hispanic drug and arms dealer), while Hines, who has crashed through the roof of the building, swings helplessly in a mountaineer's harness.

In "Lethal Weapon," Danny Glover, one of the best actors working today, plays a hero whose integrity is breached by his incessant seeking of approval -- of his wife, his children, his home, his dog and his boat -- from his partner, a Vietnam vet with psychological problems. The film also seems a throwback to a relationship of the kind enjoyed by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Shirley Temple: While his partner (Mel Gibson) gets to have all the fun -- jumping off a roof with a would-be suicide, wrecking cars and shooting the bad guys -- Glover is assigned to take care of and clean up after him.

All of this is especially disturbing in view of the changes in American life over the 31 years of the CMPA study. To be sure, the modern-day black community has its share of problems; if life for those at the bottom is not as bad as it has been at other times in our history, it still holds little promise. The mass media have done a thorough job of documenting the troubling increase in teen-age pregnancy, out-of-wedlock births, the decline in black income relative to white and the decline in the numbers of black lawyers and other professionals. But it is also true that others can do and become what their parents could only dream of. Statistics show that black college graduates can expect to make as much if not more than their white counterparts. There are more black elected officials than ever before. And a black man can run a serious, credible campaign for the presidency.

Given that Hollywood reflects so much of what is negative about black life and too little of what is positive, and that it has failed to render black images accurately, fairly and sympathetically, it is hardly surprising that black independent filmmaking is alive (if continually threatened by funding and distribution constraints) in America today. The Black Filmmaker Foundation, a New York-based funding, distribution and advocacy organization, lists a catalog of about 60 films. The Black Programming Consortium in Columbus distributes about 150 films and videotapes and sponsors an annual film festival, Prized Pieces. In Los Angeles, the Black American Cinema Society each year makes small cash awards to black filmmakers and sponsors the screenings of classic and contemporary black films. The Black Film Institute of the University of the District of Columbia has screened black films for more than a decade. And there are established festivals or film societies in Boston, New York, Newark, Atlanta, Chicago and Oakland.

The black response to traditional Hollywood is not new; and though much has been made about the freshness of Spike Lee and Robert Townsend's vision, they are merely part of the latest wave. The black independent film movement has a rich history more than 70 years old. Sometime around 1912, for example, publicist, salesman and some-time actor Bill Foster completed his comic short, "The Railroad Porter." It is the earliest-known film made by blacks. Three years later, when whites flocked to see D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," black independent film makers planned the film "Birth of a Race" to counter Griffith's negative, stereotyped portrayals. That film was never made, but the Lincoln Motion Picture Company completed films like "The Realization of a Negro's Ambition" and "The Trooper of Company K" that showed both black heroism and middle-class black achievement in the face of society's obstacles. And, of course, there was Oscar Micheaux, who was recently honored with a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award from the Directors Guild of America. Micheaux -- producer, director and distributor -- made melodramas, gangster films and westerns from 1918 to 1948.

Today's black filmmakers make movies for the same reasons their predecessors did -- they want to make money and they despair of ever seeing their lives and culture sympathetically depicted by the moguls of Hollywood. The modern movement encompasses a wide spectrum: from filmmakers with leftist leanings who consider every frame part of a battle against white oppression to those seeking to emulate the success of Spike Lee and Robert Townsend in appealing to mainstream audiences.

Among the best of the black filmmakers now working are two producer/directors from the West coast -- Billy Woodberry and Charles Burnett -- and one from the East Coast, Kathleen Collins. Woodberry's black-and-white feature length film, "Bless Their Little Hearts," is a gritty, almost documentary look at the way sudden unemployment rends the lives of a proud man and his family. Burnett's "My Brother's Wedding" is the story of a 30-year-old man torn by conflicting imperatives. His parents want him to be like his brother, a lawyer about to marry another lawyer. At the same time, his best friend has just come home from prison, and he feels drawn to the aimless life of the streets. Filmmaker-playwright-novelist Collins' "Losing Ground" examines the life of the mind and the life of the spirit through a sedate woman professor of philosophy and her exuberant husband, a painter. When the woman decides she has been too much of an intellectual, her decision to imitate her husband's spontaneity has unforeseen consequences.

One reason why these films have not enjoyed commercial release is that none of them is easily sat through. Each challenges the viewer's assumptions about race, class, sex and relationships between men and women. Unlike Hollywood stereotypes or symbols, these films and others by black independents show black people as people. They are rooted in black life. At the same time -- almost paradoxically -- because they are so culture-specific, they are universal. As Ralph Ellison concluded in his novel "Invisible Man," a work as much about human identity, choice and maturity as it is about race: "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" And, much as Ellison has acknowledged that the genesis of his masterpiece was his Oklahoma boyhood and Tuskegee sojourn and his reading of T.S. Eliot and Lord Raglan, Woodberry's "Bless Their Little Hearts" owes much to Italian neo-realist and Cuban cinema, and Collins' "Losing Ground" to Eric Rohmer's series of films collectively called "Moral Tales." The process has been akin to, say, the development of jazz and the blues, where African harmonies and melodic concepts combined with Western instruments and influences to produce a distinctively American art.

If Hollywood decides there is money in making films for black audiences in the 1980s and '90s, will those films be any different from the "blaxploitation" films of the 1970s that made heroes of pimps and drug dealers? Will the studios choose to imitate, to crank out "Hollywood Shuffle" clones in the same way that mindless teen flicks like "Summer School" or "Revenge of the Nerds" follow each other? Maybe not. Still, it's worth noting that the two black films that have been major successes so far have been comedies. (Lee's next film -- he has a deal for several other pictures, as does Townsend -- is a musical comedy set during homecoming at a black college in Atlanta. He has promised that the heroes will all be dark-skinned and the villains light-skinned.) So it isn't too early to wonder if the habit of stereotyping is so ingrained in the American consciousness as to be virtually ineradicable.

Put in that perspective, it doesn't look good at all.

David Nicholson is an assistant editor of The Washington Post Book World and the founding editor and publisher of Black Film Review.