The Glass Shield
1995, PG-13, 108 min. Directed by Charles Burnett. Starring Michael Boatman, Lori Petty, Ice Cube, Elliott Gould, Richard Anderson, Don Harvey, Michael Ironside, M. Emmet Walsh, Michael Gregory, Bernie Casey.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 23, 1995
The movie starts off with bright, full-frame cartoon images: car chases, slam-bang action, heroic arrests. A dialogue bubble declares that these actions have earned a gold shield for the peace officer involved. Cut to a live-action shot of J.J. Johnson (Boatman), who has just graduated from the police academy. It's clear that the cartoon images are his long-held dream of life as a cop: good guys catching bad guys. J.J. enthusiastically embraces his new assignment as the first black cop in an all-white sheriff's station. He is not embraced with equal enthusiasm by his new colleagues. Racism certainly has something to do with J.J.'s cool reception, but his lockout stems more from the group's tight-knit history and its treatment of everyone outside its circle as an outsider. Also blackballed is Deputy Deborah Fields (Petty), who is not only the first female in this squad but the only Jew as well. (Problem: It's not like we can check her circumcision or anything, but Tank Girl as a believable Jew is a tough sell. Moreover, has anyone ever heard of a uniformed Jewish female cop?) Anyway, this station is riddled with deep-rooted corruption and it all comes to a head for J.J. when an innocent black man (quite effectively played by Ice Cube) is framed for the murder of the wife of a prominent white citizen (Gould, in a role that has more than a passing resemblance to Boston's Charles Stuart fiasco from a few years back). Subplots begin arising from every direction, which, while helping to round out the character of J.J., can also lead to confusion and a surplus of details. That gold shield from the cartoon panels at the film's beginning has now acquired a transparency for J.J. through which he can vividly see the guts of the beast. Hounded by his fellow police officers and misunderstood by his family and community who have never understood his desire to enter law enforcement, J.J. is stuck in the position of figuring out for himself the difference between right and wrong. The Glass Shield is an ambitious and challenging work, qualities which have become synonymous with Charles Burnett's film output (The Killing Floor, To Sleep With Anger). While this current police drama has a harder edge to it than his more folkloric and imaginative previous work, The Glass Shield still retains Burnett's sensitivity to the inner workings of the black American family and community. His is a singular talent and though The Glass Shield gets bogged down in some of its narrative byways, the journey, nonetheless, is rich and rewarding.