Charles Burnett (To Sleep with Anger) may attempt too much with his police-corruption drama The Glass Shield, but the film's ambition makes Burnett's occasional overstatement easy to forgive. Burnett's walking a fine line here (selling a suspense thriller, but delivering a social drama), so missteps aren't surprising. Since police corruption has been appropriated by Hollywood as a trope in mindless thrillers, The Glass Shield's serious-minded take on the same material is both admirable and unusually penetrating.
Michael Boatman (Spin City) plays Johnny "J.J." Johnson, the newest deputy at the Edgemar Sheriff's Station. J.J.'s gristly watch commander Massey (Richard Anderson of The Six Million Dollar Man, delightfully venal) sees J.J. as a political appointment to be tolerated, but watched carefully. J.J.'s thoroughly naive idealism—rooted in childhood dreams bred by comic books and, by implication, Hollywood movies—leads to confusion as he acclimates to the hard-edged resignation of the L.A.P.D. (Burnett's sarcastic use of comic-book style unsettlingly bathes the film in blue and orange). Massey expresses skepticism at J.J.'s eagerness: "One would think you're reading Gone with the Wind." "No. No, no. It's the code book, sir," says J.J. "It's still fiction," Massey replies.
Race and gender teem loudly in the jungle of the station. "The natives are restless," observes J.J.'s fellow interloper Deborah (Lori Petty), who has the bad luck to be both female and a Jew. J.J. and Deborah know it's their burden to try to fit in, by adopting pretenses of manly power and covering their colleagues' asses. But the misfits cannot overcome their appearances: on three occasions, fellow cops (including Deborah) pull their guns on J.J. in the heat of confusing moments.
Even though they can be wary of each other (note J.J.'s reaction to Deborah's use—innocent in intent—of the word "trooper"), the pair conspire as the precinct turns against them. Rather than developing the usual good-guys-vs.-bad-guys scenario, Burnett adopts a tragic form, hinging the plot on a pivotal mistake by now-tainted hero J.J. A disconcerting scene at a crime scene in a field spurs J.J. to weigh the mortal consequences of choice and the ease with which anonymous men fall through the cracks of society.
Ice Cube plays just such a man, railroaded by a system looking for a scapegoat for the suspicious murder of the wife of a rich white guy (Elliot Gould, terrific in a small role). His lawyers (Bernie Casey and Wanda de Jesus) crusade on his behalf but meet only indifference or defensiveness. When one defense lawyer asks a city official, "Do you want him to go to jail for something he didn't do?" the response displays institutional heartlessness and decay: "No. But you have to understand city government." Burnett's blunt depictions of witness tampering hammer home the procedural failure of the criminal justice system.
The Glass Shield has a foot in the true-crime genre. Based in part on the screenplay One of Us, the true story of John Eddie Johnson, by Ned Welsh, Burnett's story also incorporates elements of other real cases (Johnson was the first minority officer in the L.A. sheriff's office). Burnett's film is a bit clumsy, especially in its unfortunately overwrought final scene, but it's easy to understand his fear of being misunderstood by audiences looking for another brain-deadening action thriller. They're likely to be disappointed, but they may have a hard time missing the point of The Glass Shield.
Supplanting the previous, extra-less release, the Miramax Collector's Series edition of The Glass Shield serves up a nice presentation of the film and adds a trio of illuminating special features: a commentary by writer/director Charles Burnett and composer Stephen James Taylor and two featurettes: "A Conversation with Charles Burnett" (10:05) and "Film Scoring with Stephen James Taylor" (13:48).
The screen-specific commentary keeps a steady pace, with Burnett occasionally explaining the dramatic purpose of a scene and Taylor explaining his musical choices. Primarily, Burnett and Taylor reminisce about the experience of making the film on a pitilessly tight budget (sets had to be built during production hours, and scenes were often filmed just after the paint had dried). Burnett also compliments his cast, describes his preparatory (and scary) police ridealongs, muses that he probably should have shot the film in black and white to counterpoint the comic-book dream, and explains why he filmed in fellow director Julie Dash's house.
Burnett's conversation, needlessly broken up by film clips, touches on some fresh points: Hollywood's role in racism, Burnett's own emergence from defeatist attitudes, and the importance of message pictures ("You have to question things"). The Taylor featurette is more energetically produced, with the gregarious composer demonstrating the use of unconventional instruments ("I consider hardware stores music stores"). Taylor also explains the notion of "picture sense," in other words "playing second fiddle to dialogue" and image.
The disc begins, as is Buena Vista Home Entertainment's custom, with previews (they can be skipped); happily, the theatrical trailer for The Glass Shield (2:14; presented in full-screen format) is accessible from the menu. Connoisseurs of filmmakers unafraid of social issues will want to add The Glass Shield to their shelves.
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