Is a tide of racial bias creeping across the movie world? Is film - often called an international language - nudging viewers away from tolerance and togetherness?
Is there a ''resurgence of offensive ethnic stereotyping'' in Hollywood today?
The answer is yes, in the view of two angry groups: the National Asian American Telecommunications Association and Chinese for Affirmative Action.
In a statement earlier this month, reported by the entertainment newspaper Variety, they zero in on two current hits - ''Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom'' and ''Sixteen Candles'' - calling them ''racist in their portrayal of Asian people.'' They say Asians in these movies are used only ''in the context of cruelly etched comic foils or mindless, faceless inferior masses.''
Speaking more generally, the groups note that such films ''consciously or unconsciously determine people's attitudes towards Asians.'' They assert that movies of this sort are especially dangerous because of their popularity with young and impressionable audiences, and they warn that ''the conservative climate in America today is conducive to turning back all the social and political gains that Asians and other people of color have made over the last 20 years....''
These groups will get no argument from me. I pointed out the bigotry of ''Sixteen Candles'' and deplored the racism of ''Indiana Jones'' in my original reviews.
But the problem isn't limited to these movies or to Asian stereotypes. Insensitive treatment of racial and ethnic material crops up in many current films. Note the conniving Arab shiekhs in ''Cannonball Run II.'' Or the condescending view of Latin America in ''Romancing the Stone.'' Or the nasty Cuban portrayals in ''Scarface.'' Or the sleazy roles for virtually all the nonwhites in ''Bachelor Party.''
Even some regions of the United States come in for such treatment. ''Rhinestone'' not only includes foolish caricatures of an Italian family but also a Li'l Abner view of Tennessee townspeople, complete with brainless whittling and missing teeth.
Sexism, too, is far from vanquished at the movies. With its helplessly screaming heroine, ''Indiana Jones'' marks a step backward even from its predecessor, ''Raiders of the Lost Ark,'' in which the female lead could at least trade punch for punch with the hero.
Why are ethnic, racial, and gender stereotypes parading across the screen so frequently? A key reason is that today's filmmakers are steeped in movies of the past - ''Indiana Jones,'' for example, is based directly on old matinee serials - and they are fond of reviving and rehashing old Hollywood conventions, including some that there's no reason to be proud of.
The fact is that Hollywood has a long history of exploiting racial slurs and stereotypes. Some practices were even institutionalized in the notorious Production Code, set up in the 1930s to guard the manners and morals of moviegoers.
Some of today's viewers, fed up with sex and violence, look back on the code with nostalgia; but it's important to remember the dark side of that long-lived experiment. ''Miscegenation (sex relationship between different races) is forbidden,'' read one clause. In practice this meant - to quote film historian Roger Dooley - that ''when two young people of different races fell in love, it was a sin against white ethnic purity for which the only proper wages was death for at least one, preferably the one with darker skin.''
This discrimination went for all races other than white and was felt in many types of films, not just romances. According to Dooley, blacks, native Americans , and Chinese were the most ''grievously slandered'' groups during the '30s, although the Japanese caught up after Pearl Harbor.
Racial and ethnic attitudes have liberalized in recent years, but for the most part the self-centered movie world has continued to reflect white, bourgeois values. One sharp-eyed critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum, has complained of ''incessantly hammered-in xenophobia'' - a fear or hatred of anything foreign - in films as diverse as ''Star Wars'' and ''The Deer Hunter.'' While such attitudes may be tucked deeply into a movie's fabric and be hard to pin down, their influence is present and pervasive.
Still, all is not gloomy, even amid the current spate of insensitive films. Such hits as ''Ghostbusters'' and ''Gremlins'' make at least a nominal effort to integrate their casts with black or Asian characters of some dignity, considering the circumstances. A main character of ''The Karate Kid'' is a wise and good Okinawan teacher. ''Moscow on the Hudson'' is a bittersweet celebration of the immigrant experience, though its potshots at Soviet society are paired with a curiously benign view of American poverty. Despite its other lapses, ''Rhinestone'' has a heroine who is leagues ahead of the menfolk in brains and talent. The cast of ''The Muppets Take Manhattan'' is integrated by race as well as by species.
And some gifted performers from minority groups are single-handedly winning over wide audiences. A good example is Richard Pryor, whose concert films have been hugely popular. Indeed, in his 1980 book ''Moving Places,'' critic Rosenbaum (who is white) says one movie - which he saw with a mainly black audience - taught him ''that political ties can still be found, renewed and/or tested among diverse groups inside an auditorium, not broken and subdivided on the way in by diverse forms of racism and class distinction.''
Rosenbaum goes on to a key question: Do today's commercial films offer ''public forums and community meeting places'' or just ''private sites of narcissistic pleasure'' for self-absorbed individuals?
The evidence today is mixed, as I see it. People still treasure the experience of mingling with other viewers in movie houses, despite the lure of cable TV and videocassettes at home. Filmgoing remains a social activity that brings varied crowds together in a shared experience.
Yet the movies themselves aren't living up to their responsibilities. Films are increasingly aimed at specific audiences - fantasies for kids, sex farces for teens, and so on - instead of encouraging broad family viewing. The new PG- 13 rating, although advisory rather than binding, may heighten the trend toward labeling and fragmentation even more.
And movies that take snide attitudes toward minority groups pollute the general atmosphere of moviegoing by hurting sensitive viewers, while providing others with nothing more valuable than cheap jokes or easy stereotypes that sidestep thought. Amid the current controversies about violence and sex in film, issues of racism and sexism must not be overlooked. While often harder to spot and more complex to analyze, they stand among the most insidious villains of the movie world.