Friday June 2, 1995
Charles Burnett, the writer-director of "The Glass Shield," doesn't make movies like anybody else. And since his new film is a police drama, his uniqueness, at least initially, is doubly welcome.
He doesn't try to give us a big-screen TV cop movie; he doesn't jiggle his cameras and pour on the profanities and the blood. We're watching a small-scale, closed-in tale of moral outrage, and Burnett's core of intelligence keeps it from edging into a rant.
The problem is that Burnett, who had difficulties with his production company over the film's final cut, works in such large, broad strokes that the film becomes melodramatic and lifeless the more it tries to ram home its points of social injustice. Based loosely on real incidents involving John Eddie Johnson, the first minority officer in an all-white L.A. sheriff's office, the film follows J.J. (Michael Boatman) as he endures the racism, at first casual, then overt, of his fellow officers.
J.J. is potentially a great character. He has always wanted to be a cop and, for a while, he goes along with the lying in the department because he wants to be "one of them." He genuinely believes in cleaning up the streets, and when he falsely implicates a black kid (Ice Cube) in the murder of the wife of a white businessman (Elliott Gould), he believes he's working for a greater good.
J.J. is torn apart by his allegiance to a sheriff's office that is characterized as clearly racist and as willing to sacrifice him when the going gets rough. He feels like a traitor to the community that is clamoring for justice on another police brutality case involving an African American street kid who suspiciously expired in jail. When J.J. and fellow harassed officer Deborah (Lori Petty)--the department's only female trooper--try to turn the tables, they walk into a jungle of conspiracies.
Burnett, in films such as "To Sleep With Anger" and "Killer of Sheep," has constructed such densely packed emotional landscapes that "The Glass Shield," with its ringing declarations and cardboard villains, seems flat by comparison. The actors don't provide much shading; even J.J., conflicted as he is, doesn't resonate. He's in the movie in order to make the move from naive to wised-up, but his story seems more a demonstration than a drama. His sacrifice is too ringingly symbolic.
J.J.'s story is all too real but Burnett, by making virtually every white officer in the sheriff's department a cringing cur, makes it seem overscaled. (The curs are played by, among others, Michael Gregory, Richard Anderson and M. Emmett Walsh.) The corrupt cops in this film spend a lot of time talking out their plots; what's probably closer to the truth is that the kind of corruption that goes on here isn't discussed with hand-rubbing glee. The truly corrupt don't * need to be told how to be corrupt--that's why they're favored in the first place.
Burnett keeps a tight control over the production, and it takes on the quality of an enveloping nightmare. It's a rigorous, angry piece of work, but it misses out on the psychological depths that have made Burnett's previous films among the glories of recent American independent moviemaking. He's fashioned a manifesto, and the suit doesn't quite fit him.
The Glass Shield, 1995. PG-13, for intense dramatic situations. A Miramax Films presentation. Director-writer-cinematographer Charles Burnett. Producer Carolyn Schroeder. Executive producer Chet Walker. Editor Curtiss Clayton. Costumes Gaye Shannon Burnett. Music Stephen James Taylor. Production design Penny Barnett. Set decorator Lisa Boutillier. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. Michael Boatman as J.J. Johnson. Lori Petty as Deborah Fields. Bernie Casey as Locket. Elliott Gould as Mr. Greenwall.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times