Bill Duke's new film "A Rage in Harlem" has been quite successful in urban centers, where movies often start out before making their way to the hinterlands.

And that's very satisfying for Duke, since directing is what he wants to do. As he puts it, acting pays the rent but directing is more satisfying.You may have seen Duke in any number of films, primarily playing heavies. He stalked Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn in "Bird on a Wire" last year and was a co-star to Arnold Schwarzenegger in both "Predator" and "Commando."

Meanwhile, Duke has been honing his directing skills on the stage and with episodic TV, such as "Miami Vice," "Dallas," "Cagney & Lacey," "Hill Street Blues" and many others. He also helmed a very well-received TV movie for PBS, "The Killing Floor."

But "A Rage in Harlem" marks his theatrical film debut, and he's obviously excited about the prospect of being thrust into a career of directing features.

"This is a 31/2-year project," Duke said in a telephone interview from his Los Angeles office. "You're seeing it 31/2 years after the fact."

"A Rage in Harlem," based on a Chester Himes novel, is an ensemble action-comedy about a sexy thief (Robin Givens, in her film debut) who steals a cache of gold from her ruthless colleagues and heads for Harlem to trade it for cash. Along the way she romances a naive mortician (Forest Whitaker, who also co-produced the film) and meets up with a big-time gangster (Danny Glover), a small-time scam artist (Gregory Hines) and too many other oddball characters to list here.

"The project attracted me because Himes was a wonderful writer and because I was interested in the two main characters, this really naive, virginal guy and this streetwise woman - two most unlikely people to fall in love. And the treasure hunt fascinated me."

There's no question that "A Rage in Harlem" has garnered most of its attention from the show-stopping performance of Robin Givens, which critics have singled out despite her being surrounded by a high-profile cast. "I feel very fortunate that we got her," Duke says. "Isn't she wonderful? We're very happy for her."

Givens is probably best known for her tabloid battles with ex-husband Mike Tyson, though she also co-starred in the TV series "Head of the Class," and has had roles in a number of other shows, including Oprah Winfrey's "The Women of Brewster Place."

"But no one took her seriously," Duke said. "No one gave her a chance. I auditioned 250 girls and then she came in with the last four - and when she came in, she blasted everyone out of the room. She had to. She had something to prove."

Despite his success with "A Rage in Harlem," Duke says he has no intention of ever abandoning acting altogether. "Acting is one of my first loves and it's something I will always continue to do. But I started off as a director, a stage director, and I've always wanted to direct film but was intimidated. Then I was just offered acting. But right now my focus is on co-writing and co-producing, I have some TV and feature ideas I'm pitching to several studios. And at the moment there's no acting on the horizon."

Duke is not militant about white directors not being allowed to direct films with black subjects, as is "Do the Right Thing" director Spike Lee, who, it is rumored, has wrested the rights to a movie about Malcolm X away from Norman Jewison, the white director of "A Soldier's Story" and "In the Heat of the Night."

"I think that anybody can direct anything," Duke says. "I could direct or Spike could direct a film about the Holocaust - and could make a pretty good film. Although we are not Jews, our humanity speaks to the issue of the Holocaust. We're appalled by the inhumanity to man.

"But we're not going to do the same job as a Jewish director who has been raised in a householdwhere his grandmother rocked him to sleep and he saw numbers on her arms. He (a Jewish director) brings something extra. There's something to be said about that. And black directors bring something to the black experience a white director cannot.

"Now I would like to submit that it would be great if the day ever came that they were doing `Godfather 12' and called Bill Duke and said that they like my work and would like me to direct `Godfather 12.' It doesn't look like that will happen, but it would be great if it did."

The reason that sort of thing is not likely to happen is that movies are for some reason tougher on black directors than, say, television. "TV is not so discriminatory. I've directed numerous shows where I was literally the only black face on the set - not even any black actors around. But movies can't seem to catch on to that. It seems to be a certain kind of lack of commitment of making the change in that direction. I don't see it coming."