Although writer/director Charles Burnett throws more weighty social and political issues on the table than he can possibly dramatize coherently in less than two hours, “The Glass Shield” emerges as a powerful moral drama that tries to deal with the racism at the root of many problems in contempo American society. Film’s equivocal artistic success makes it questionable as a specialized, review-driven release stateside in the manner of the director’s last effort, “To Sleep With Anger.” What the film has to say will, however, undoubtedly resonate with certain segments of the public, making for a marketing challenge that could pay off with the right moves.
A director warmly embraced by critics but not yet discovered by a wide audience, Burnett here pushes more elemental and inflammatory buttons than before as he dissects a law enforcement system riddled with corruption from top to bottom.
He frames his corrosive portrait around the story of an enthusiastic black rookie cop whose tragic personal journey sees him move from being part of the solution to part of the problem.
At the outset, the youthful J.J. (Michael Boatman) is not exactly given a warm welcome as the first black recruit at the rough, L.A. inner city Edgemar station.
It’s dominated by a good old boys’ group, four members of which have recently been under investigation for using excessive force on the job. His sole ally initially is another outcast, Deborah (Lori Petty), the only woman at the station and a Jew.
After a cataloging of subtle and implicit forms of racism on the force, incident that sets the dense plot in motion is the arrest of Teddy Woods (Ice Cube) at a gas station. Woods is obviously pulled over by one of the Southern Cal surfer-type cops only because he’s black, but when it turns out he’s got a gun hidden under his car seat, he is booked and accused of murdering the wife of the affluent Mr. Greenwall (Elliott Gould) on the basis of the gun ID.
Anxious to fit in and prove himself on the squad, J.J., who was also at the scene, goes along with the lie that Teddy was stopped for a traffic violation, which moves Teddy well along the road to death row.
By the second half, film becomes far too top-heavy with content to retain its dramaturgical balance and artistic grace; Burnett clearly had so much he wanted to get off his chest that it became impossible to find a place for it all within his structure.
At the same time, his burning need to deal with these issues is also what gives the film its urgency and force, so it becomes possible to forgive a lot of the esthetic untidiness for the sake of seeing all this discussed so passionately.
At moments, one can see the seed of a modern “Chinatown” here. In painting all the white cops’ actions as racist, Burnett is slanting the argument, but it’s part of a general aim to dig to the very bottom of things, and thus defensible.
Along the way, vivid snapshots are offered of an overloaded court system, jails that can be more dangerous than the street, police and city government at sharp odds with one another, and the toll taken on the personal lives of police officers.
Boatman gives a lively, sympathetic perf as the eager cop who does the wrong thing, although his private life is scanted to make room for all the sociological and plot baggage.
Nearly all the white characters are hypocrites or downright meanies. Petty doesn’t bring much dimension to her role, which could have served as a more effective contrast to the prevailing toughness of the other characters.
Tech credits are solid, although the style is much more straight-ahead than the more oblique, poetic approach of Burnett’s previous work.