Lee and others say that the one trickle-down effect of the situation is that black actors have only the same slivers of opportunity for quality work as they've had since the movies became America's signature business. Is it the best of times or the worst? The empirical answer is, both; the analytical answer is, not quite the worst, but not far off.
The past decade has indeed produced a bumper crop of leading black actors and actresses, including Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Samuel L Jackson, Angela Bassett, Whitney Houston and Wesley Snipes, all of whom command at least $1m a film. At the other end of the spectrum are somewhat older actors such as Morgan Freeman and Danny Glover, well-respected performers who none the less seem to have hit a glass ceiling in terms of breadth and depth of roles. Taken all together, these actors are an impressive group but hardly represent the dissolution of Hollywood's colour bias; looking at it another way, their presence, historic though it is, has not disturbed the industry's essential power structure. Black actors still largely exist to further a narrow image and fulfil narrow expectations not of their making, and as such they are always expendable.
Some of the increased black screen visibility is due to the rise of hip- hop, and the emergence of a new black audience called the urban or inner- city market. Rap-generation comics such as Chris Rock and Chris Tucker have capitalised on this trend and found movie stardom; so have rappers such as Ice Cube, Queen Latifah, Ice-T, and the late Tupac Shakur.
Mainstream black actors have not fared nearly as well, not just because black drama is always scarce but because the hip-hop sensibility began to define black film and further limit the possibilities of what was financially feasible. Soundtracks, a crucial element of black films since the early 1970s, became all-important - almost more important than the films themselves; soundtracks featuring up and coming hip-hop and R & B artists - urban artists - are often released to greater success than the movies they are allegedly promoting.
It's no coincidence that the groundbreaking Will Smith started out as a rapper and created himself a funny, streetwise persona that served him first on television in Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and later in the movies. In a way, however, he's become victimised by the parameters of his own success: the artistic leap he made in John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, his first screen role, in which he played a glib, gay hustler and for which he received critical raves, was never repeated or built upon.
A condition of Smith's phenomenal leading-man success, apparently, was that he be affable, quick-witted, handsome and well-dressed - not that much different from Smith's white counterpart Tom Cruise, except that Cruise has always also taken on challenging and emotionally complex roles that measurably broaden his hunk appeal. Smith is not only not taking on such roles; he seems to be moving in the opposite direction with quasi- kiddie films such as Men in Black and Independence Day (though we can hold out some hope - he's also preparing to play Muhammad Ali in a forthcoming biopic). The spectre of the original constitutional definition of a black man's worth - three-fifths of a white man - is raised uncomfortably on screen today. Blacks, regardless of their bankability or prominence in Hollywood, still convey less humanity than whites.
Still, Smith is applauded by many black moviegoers for what he is not - a ghetto-bred, drug-dealing, prison-prowling human pathogen that has dominated black films since the dawn of the 1990s and the advent of Menace II Society and New Jack City as the new standard-bearers of not merely black film but black authenticity. Samuel Jackson's career-defining moment came in Pulp Fiction as a garrulous, scripture-quoting hit-man with a short fuse and a penchant for using the word "nigger" - the star has become synonymous with, and somewhat infamous for, the use of the word.
In the last few years there has been a backlash to the ghettoisation of black film, in the form of respectable middle-class stories that assiduously avoid street life and all things rap: Waiting to Exhale, Love Jones, The Preacher's Wife, Eve's Bayou. Though the stories were often soft-headed, the films at least granted celluloid space to actors who deserved much more of it - actors such as Lynn Whitfield, Courtney Vance, Debbi Morgan and Angela Bassett.
But with all black actors, it is not so much about building an individual career as it is about waiting for a trend to take hold or an appropriate part to become available in a niche movie. This underscores the black- expendability syndrome, and makes continuity for black leading actors all but impossible.
Consider the careers of two once-promising actresses, Cynda Williams and Jennifer Beals (black actresses have it tougher than the men, probably because black men are rarely, if ever, cast as romantic leads and hence never need leading ladies cast opposite them). Williams worked with Spike Lee in Mo' Better Blues and co-starred with Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton in 1995's One False Move, the widely acclaimed debut of the black director Carl Franklin. Despite a noteworthy performance, Williams was never seen in such exalted company again; she last appeared in last year's eminently forgettable black street saga, Caught Up.
Beals's tale is truly that of the tragic mulatto, the name given to a turn-of-the-century genre of pulp fiction that sensationalised the story of well-born white Southern women who discovered they had black ancestry. Back in 1982, Beals and the trendsetting movie Flashdance were all the rage, and few of the movie-going public took the mightily attractive Beals for anything other than a curly-haired, olive-skinned white girl. It slowly became known that Beals was half black, and the movie offers all but died - she was no longer Jennifer Beals, but a black actress, and thus had to go to the back of the line like everyone else.
Her biggest role since Flashdance came only two years ago in Carl Franklin's Devil in a Blue Dress, in which she played, with commensurate irony, a light-skinned black woman trying to pass for a white socialite in post- war Los Angeles. When diva Halle Berry's career hit a low, the woman known for her cool beauty and refinement resorted to playing a gold-toothed, foul-mouthed ghettoista in BAPS, a hopelessly conceived fish-out-of-water comedy about a couple of black charlatans in Beverly Hills. It is still difficult to tell whether Berry was hard up for work or simply bent on proving her own black authenticity, and thus her employability, to herself.
So for all the relative gains - bigger paydays, more product, more market placement - black actors still do an uneasy dance, not merely with Hollywood but often with the very images they project. Around the time that he did Six Degrees, Will Smith said that Denzel Washington explained to him that white people accepted their movie stars as actors playing roles; black people personalised black actors as heroes because there were so few of them; black audiences might therefore grumble at Smith playing a gay man, or at Washington kissing a white actress on screen. Caught in the net of one set of expectations is purgatory; caught in the net of two is hell. It will take some time, years considerably beyond 2000, before blacks can extricate themselves from both, and begin to be actors in their own right.
Wild, West West (12) opens on 13 August
SAY IT LOUD ...
Trickle-down effect, what trickle-down effect? Black actors today get as few chances to do quality work as ever, says the director of Malcolm X
He's well-respected. He's done quality work - Seven (1995) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994). But his career seems to have hit a glass ceiling
When she starred in Flashdance (1982), audiences thought she was white. As people learnt that she was black, the offers of work all but died
Why did the elegant diva play a foul-mouthed ghettoista in BAPS (1997)? Was it an authenticity trip, or was she just desperate for the work?
Black people personalise black actors as heroes, he said to Will Smith. White actors don't have to deal with such a burden of expectation