The Glass Shield: Special Edition
January 23, 2006
Charles Burnett, ,
Starring: Richard Anderson, Michael Boatman, Bernie Casey, Elliott Gould, Don Harvey, Ice Cube, Michael Ironside, Natalija Nogulich, Lori Petty, M. Emmet Walsh, Gary Wood, Sy Richardson,
Charles Burnett is one of America’s most underrated filmmakers working today. Unlike his African-American contemporary, Spike Lee, he is not an outspoken personality in his own right, preferring to let the work speak for itself. In many respects, his films are self-aware in terms of social conscience as John Sayles’ own work. As a result, Burnett also finds it hard to get his movies widely distributed. The Glass Shield (1994) was his attempt to reach a wider audience by having Miramax distribute it. Sadly, like Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), it was subjected to the same lackluster release by Miramax head honcho, Harvey Weinstein and promptly disappeared.
John Johnson (Boatman) is a fresh, young recruit from the Academy who starts work in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department as the token minority along with the lone woman, Deputy Fields (Petty). He’s introduced to his fellow officers and the racism towards him isn’t overt but there in subtle ways, like how a couple cops refuse to shake his hand. Johnson quickly sees the racist attitude of his fellow lawmen first hand when his partner (Wood) harasses a black woman for speeding under the auspices of doing his job regardless of class, sex or race.
Johnson is entering the police force during a volatile time. The department is facing budget cuts and lawsuits (for wrongful deaths, etc.) and the Captain makes it clear that it’s time to close ranks and back each other up. To make matters worse, the black community is up in arms over several deaths of young men in police custody. Johnson finds himself torn between being loyal to his fellow officers and to his community. This is put to the test when he partakes in an arrest of a young black man (Cube) for possession of a gun who is then framed for murder by two corrupt police detectives (Ironside and Walsh).
Michael Boatman plays Johnson as a man who is a little too earnest but that comes from being inexperienced. The young cop soon finds that he’s not wanted in the Sheriff’s department. No one says it out loud but it’s obvious in the way his fellow officers act towards him with barely concealed contempt. After seeing Ice Cube in films like this, and Boyz n the Hood (1991) one wonders why he’s wasting his time in films like Are We There Yet? (2005) and XXX: State of the Union (2005). He’s excellent as a wrongfully accused man.
Stylistically, Burnett is not as in-your-face as Spike Lee, preferring to let the content and the characters deliver his message. That’s not to say his films don’t have their own style—The Glass Shield is a well-shot movie (adopting a colour scheme that reflects Johnson’s comic book fantasies)—it just doesn’t cause unnecessary attention to itself.
Burnett presents a nuanced and intelligent portrait of the corrupt California justice system, from the average beat cop to the judges. Minorities are not treated fairly and those who work within the system face an uphill battle if they try to change things. The veteran director portrays Johnson’s dilemma as a morally complex problem where one small lie has huge ramifications that don’t just affect our protagonist but his co-workers and his community. Burnett is an important filmmaker who deserves to be appreciated by a mainstream audience but for now he remains highly regarded by critics and discerning cineastes.
There is an audio commentary by writer/director Charles Burnett and composer Stephen James Taylor. For research, he went on some police drive-alongs and found them very dangerous and intense, seeing suspects shot, stabbed and someone even killed while coming under fire himself. He also points out that the cops are conditioned not to trust anyone before they are sent out on patrol and this often explains their hostile behaviour on the streets. This is an intelligent, conversational track with lots of excellent observations by both men with some good stories told by Burnett.
“A Conversation with Charles Burnett” is a featurette that alternates between clips from the movie and Burnett talking. He always felt that black people were never understood and that Hollywood has been rife with stereotypes from the get-go. He tries to dispel these biased images in his movies and portrays a more balanced view.
“Film Scoring with Stephen James Taylor” explores this composer’s creative process. He drew from all kinds of musical genres with Negro spiritual melodies as the score’s heart. He also talks about the origins of key musical cues from the movie.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.