Charles Burnett’s 1994 film The Glass Shield does not begin in the way anyone familiar with Burnett’s work would expect. The first images we see are of hyperstylized comic book panels by illustrator Grant Shaffer blown up across the screen, depicting the kind of cop vs psycho storyline that American audiences were more than accustomed to after decades of police action films and TV shows. The unspoken implication is that The Glass Shield will be a different kind of police movie, one that foregoes the artificial propaganda elements of a typical cop film and focus on the real racism and real corruption that define policing in the US, not a superheroic cop vs criminal thriller that’s closer to comic book than reality.
There are no violent psycho killers in The Glass Shield, or mad terrorist bombers, or lunatic kidnappers. Instead the menace is operating strictly within the law, or at least within law enforcement, police officers who not only believe they’re above the law but that they’re governed by a higher law: keep your fellow officers out of trouble, no matter what. The film also lacks the traditional cop movie heroes this genre usually specializes in. Instead, we have Michael Boatman as JJ Johnson, the first black deputy recruited by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Johnson is enthusiastic about policing and wants to fit in with his fellow officers on the force, but his conscience nags him because of the things he’s forced to see and comply with on the job. Lori Petty plays Deborah Fields, the department’s first female deputy, and the two form a strange bond owing to their shared outsider status.
The plot of The Glass Shield has what Raymond Chandler might call “the tangled woof of fact,” and what a screenwriting teacher might criticize for being overly convoluted with little satisfactory payoff. But in trying to depict the social realities of law enforcement, it’s possible that a more conventionally satisfying three-act mystery structure would run contrary to these aims.
The result is that The Glass Shield doesn’t quite work as counter-propaganda to the endless wave of cop movies and TV shows of its time, it simply can’t compete with more conventional action-adventure narratives in terms of entertainment value. But Burnett seems to want to make up the slack with sheer visual force of will, and almost every scene in The Glass Shield feels artfully composed (almost like those comic book panels in the opening sequence); the screen is saturated with bold primary colors (mostly red and blue, naturally) and sometimes entire dialogue scenes are played out in silhouette. It’s a real contrast to the neo-realist feel of Burnett’s Killer of Sheep or the mostly naturalistic folktale quality of To Sleep With Anger, and it just makes me feel all the more disappointed that he hasn’t gotten to do more properly financed studio films, because as The Glass Shield illustrates he’s more than capable of doing unique, memorable work within the confines of mainstream genres — even going so far as to ignore many of those confines in the process.
Outside of Boatman and Petty, The Glass Shield is full of recognizable names and faces, some of whom were presumably eager to take on a small role in a modest project for a chance to work with Burnett on something with this project’s subversive significance. The most striking of these is probably Elliott Gould, who was a couple of decades out from his prime as a movie star but is still surprising to see in the very small role of Greenspan, a man whose wife is murdered and appears to lie about the circumstances of the crime in order to implicate Teddy Woods (Ice Cube), a victim of racial profiling who is brought up on the bogus murder charge and whose case forms the spine of the film’s courtroom drama plot. Woods’s attorney is played by none other than the great Bernie Casey, and the two worst cops in the department are played by pretty much the best two actors you can get for slimy, institutional evil: Michael Ironside and M. Emmet Walsh.
Looking at some of the original marketing materials for The Glass Shield, it’s clear that this was not an easy movie to sell. The typical Miramax trailer leans heavily on promising “heart-stopping suspense” and a mysterious conspiracy, but the reality of the film isn’t as simple or as marketable as that. The crimes in The Glass Shield are violent but sadly mundane, and the film seems aware at every turn of the plot that other crimes just like them have happened and are continuing to happen in police departments across America.
But Burnett is too good a filmmaker to let The Glass Shield turn into a simple polemic statement. The primary takeaway I have from the film is how fluidly watchable it is despite its talky, arguably convoluted, and inarguably depressing plot, thanks to his visual acuity and its once-in-a-lifetime cast. That it still feels vital and urgent almost 30 years after it was released is pretty depressing too, but that’s the country’s fault, not the movie’s.