Charles Lane may seem like a Spike Lee wannabe a diminutive, bespectacled director-actor with a thematic agenda but his approach to socially conscious moviemaking is altogether different. Witness his first studio feature, True Identity. In a season filled with volatile dramas about black culture, Lane (who made his debut in 1989 with an award-winning silent film, Sidewalk Stories), is making a commentary about racism through a lighthearted comedy. ''I told the studio (Touchstone) that this could not just be 'Ho, ho, ho.' There have to be some things that will hit,'' says Lane, ''but I couldn't let that ruin the comedic momentum.''
The story (adapted from a skit done on Saturday Night Live) ''is about pigmentation, perceptions, and misconceptions,'' Lane says. ''Here's a black guy seeing the world through white skin, but it isn't heavy-handed, up on a soapbox,'' he insists. ''I let the film become the roller-coaster ride that it's supposed to be.'' That's not to say that the set became a circus. While shooting a scene in which star Lenny Henry appears as James Brown's purple-tuxedoed brother, Lane had no choice but to get serious. ''Lenny was so funny that the crew kept breaking up,'' says the director, who feared the repetitive takes would push him over budget. ''After the second or third time, you get a little nervous. I had to ask people to leave the room.'' Maintaining his easygoing approach, the 37-year-old Lane, who lives with his wife and daughter in New York, is now working on Skins, a comedy about an interracial romance.