In Charles Burnett’s The Glass Shield (1995), a drama of corruption, racism and sexism within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department which was based on a true story, violence and racial tension is set at a constant simmer from the start—upon arriving for his first day on the job, rookie cop J.J. Johnson (Michael Boatman), apparently the station’s first and only African-American officer, is assumed by one of the department vets to be a trustee rather than an employee, a mistake Johnson takes in stride as he flashes his badge and makes his way in. Once inside, it’s certainly clear enough to the viewer, if not Johnson, what he’s up against. The office is overwhelmed with big, tough, power-tripping Caucasians, many of whom look like out-of-work porn stars or Tom Selleck wannabes, or both, tossing casual racism about like a football at a tailgater, all overseen by a rogue’s gallery of familiar character actors (when Michael Ironside shows up as a detective, you know it’s not going to go well for Johnson) and the station commander (Richard Anderson), whose resemblance to ex-L.A. police chief Daryl Gates isn’t likely a coincidence.
Johnson believes he can fit in, that there is a place for him among the ranks, and he believes in the system as it applies both to him as an upcoming peace officer and those he is assigned to protect and serve. But soon, in order to become one of the boys, Johnson participates in what he perceives as a routine traffic stop which instead turns out to be a classic case of racial profiling. The driver, Teddy Wood (Ice Cube), gets hauled in on a concealed weapons charge, and the underpinnings of Johnson’s faith begin to crumble. By the time the case goes to trial, Johnson has lied about the circumstances to protect the arresting officer (Don Harvey), and Wood has been plugged into the patsy role in a murder case by a couple of sleazy detectives (M. Emmett Walsh and, yes, Ironside) looking to disguise a trail of corruption that leads much further than the sheriff’s station. He ends up forming an alliance with another outsider, a female deputy (Lori Petty) who has been on the receiving end of another sort of harassment, and the two of them go about discovering just how in over their heads they really are when it comes to finding justice from within.
Its anger having been informed both by the outrage and the aftermath of the Rodney King case in 1992 and the O.J. Simpson trial, which would come to its controversial conclusion a few months after its release, it seems reasonable to presume that, as much as the world hasn’t changed in 20 years, The Glass Shield might be even more potent than it turns out to be. And though that constant simmer of racial tension remains admirably restrained throughout—the movie shines when compared its 2004 corollary, Crash, whose stew of outrage was overheated from frame one— there’s a strangely muted quality about The Glass Shield, almost as if we were seeing the events of the film being played out as a case study under glass. (One could assume the movie occurs in the “present day,” but even in 1995 the notion of an all-white sheriff’s station being forced to accept a black man into their fraternity seemed strangely dated.)
We’re not in David Ayer territory here—the camera setups are reserved, conservative, and Burnett’s screenplay is rather astonishingly profanity-free. The word “nigger” is never spoken, but its unexpected appearance in writing lends the movie a necessary edge of horror and sets the rest of Burnett’s approach apart as comparatively reserved, even tepid. Even so, you can feel the tension between the warmly observational writer-director of Killer of Sheep and To Sleep with Anger and the restrictions he’s placed on himself in fashioning a more concisely told drama, one that must, to a certain degree, play by genre rules rather than searching for vital life in the margins.
As is, The Glass Shield, even as volatile as its subject matter is, carries a patina of Afterschool Special obviousness about it—it’s an absorbing movie which hardly ever strays into trouble areas for which it doesn’t already have a stinger of pointed dialogue at the ready, so ready that even Spike Lee might blush a little upon hearing them. (Few movies could fully recover from its hero intoning, “Like the song says, my skin is my sin,” or a peace officer finally braying his true colors-- “Let the professionals police this jungle!”) There are no earthshaking surprises here—corruption is exposed, justice is served, including the poetic kind-- a title card tells us that Anderson’s lordly, condescending Commander Massey retired from the force unindicted and opened a one-hour photo shop which was robbed twice during its first year of operation. We’re left with the feeling that, the small victories depicted here notwithstanding, professional inroads will be made but to a great degree the putrid business of racism will continue as usual. (Twenty years after the release of The Glass Shield, the fates of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garber and countless others have done little to assuage that uneasy conclusion.)
Burnett is too much of a realist to spare his audience the sight of Johnson having to face up to the consequences of his own role in the Teddy Wood injustice, but the moment is undercut by Boatman’s relative callowness in the part. At one point a character remarks on how Johnson's time in the sheriff’s department has hardened him, made him unrecognizable, and the viewer has to forgive him/herself for thinking that the actor looks as soft as ever. Boatman is an easy, welcoming presence and he plays along, but the deeper reserves, if they exist, go untapped, which in an odd way makes him the perfect lead for Burnett’s righteously fueled but tempered and dramatically incurious approach. The Glass Shield is by no means a cynical movie, and in some ways it’s probably a necessary one, but it lacks the investigative punch and complexity to be an important one.
This review is my contribution to the White Elephant Blogathon, hosted by Philip Tatler at his blog Diary of a Country Pickpocket. As Philip explains, “film bloggers the world over have submitted their favorite (or, if they're particularly sinister, least favorite) film oddities to me. Those films have gone into a hat and been randomly assigned back to the members of the film blogletariat.” Philip has an ever-increasing list of all the writing that makes up this year’s edition, and I’m excited that two of my favorite film writers are taking on suggestions submitted by me: Glenn Kenny dives into Ken Russell’s Lisztomania, and Roderick Heath answers the question “What ever happened to Bertrand Blier with his essay on the director’s 2005 How Much Do You Love Me? Check out the full list of contributions, which will get longer as the day progresses, at Diary of a Country Pickpocket.