There is a certain kind of white-male face--leathery, long, hollow-cheeked and often mustachioed--that immediately suggests evil petty authority. Many such faces are in evidence among the actors who play the cops in The Glass Shield, a melodrama about police corruption from the unfortunately obscure writer-director Charles Burnett. The air in the squad rooms and locker rooms where much of the film unfolds is heavy with Caucasian testosterone--the soil from which most movies are grown, and thus regarded by most moviemakers as a sweet fragrance. In Burnett's film, it's a stench. Still, it's exactly the environment to which the hero and heroine aspire. Two rookie officers, a black man (Michael Boatman) and a Jewish woman (Lori Petty), are desperate to be accepted in an otherwise all-white, all-male Southern California sheriff's department. Their assignment to this particular station appears be political--to pre-empt discrimination charges--but it backfires when the two join forces to expose a cover-up.
Boatman participates in the arrest of a young black man named Teddy (Ice Cube) for illegally carrying a gun in his car, and backs up his white partner's false story that the kid was pulled over for an illegal turn. Later, Boatman learns that Teddy is being charged with the murder of a white woman. Petty, present when the body was discovered, tells Boatman of her suspicions that it's a bum rap.
What follows is a wildly convoluted, nearly incomprehensible plot involving not only the two rookies, but also a large gallery of supporting characters, gleefully played by a bunch of first-rate character actors. There's Michael Ironside, M. Emmet Walsh and Richard Anderson as the odious, scheming senior cops, Elliott Gould as the murdered woman's husband, Natalija Nogulich as a shrewd judge, and the fine, underrated Bernie Casey as Teddy's wily lawyer, one of the best roles he's had in his long career.
Burnett is known, if at all, for his eerie domestic comedy To Sleep With Anger. Like The Glass Shield, it was a bit of an oblique head-scratcher--at least to one outside the African-American culture depicted--but its mysteriousness was haunting, and it featured the best performance that Danny Glover has given on film. As a more topical effort, The Glass Shield feels more dangerously uneven. Burnett shifts freely between scenes with the iron edge of potent and scary naturalism--like Teddy's arrest--and sequences full of sentiment, of bizarre, hysterical histrionics and of gratuitous plot twists.
Yet in the end, the film adds up. In the opening sequence, Burnett even finds a striking way to help us accept Boatman's improbably naive hero. Overall, The Glass Shield is one of the more original cinematic explorations of institutional racism. It's also one of the very few movies about the plight of young urban black men which resists the temptation to trade on the excitement value of blazing automatic weapons.
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This very lack of conventional action scenes has handicapped the film commercially. It easily might not have seen theatrical release at all if not for the presence of the popular rapper Ice Cube, who is excellent in his very small role. As it is, The Glass Shield has been opened locally only at Mesa 6 discount theatre, which deserves a nod of gratitude for the booking. If you want to see this impressive oddity on a screen, catch it quickly; it's unlikely to last long.