The Glass Shield Review
The Glass Shield is a striking example that important topics and interesting settings can sometimes inexplicably lead to fairly average movies; in this case, racism and corruption in the Los Angeles Police.
J.J Johnson (Michael Boatman, Hamburger Hill) is the first black recruit at the Los Angeles Edgemar police station. Some existing members of the force are under investigation for using excessive force on the job. While on the job Teddy Woods (Ice Cube, Boyz’n the Hood) is pulled over on a pretext and upon finding a gun in the back of his car, he is arrested and charged with the murder of a business man's wife. J.J goes along with the lie and the racial victimisation as he wants to fit in and prove himself.
The Glass Shield was Charles Burnett’s fourth film after Killer of Sheep, made as part of his UCLA thesis in 1978, My Brother's Wedding and To Sleep with Anger.
Still in line with the Black Independent Movement, a movement created by African American filmmakers from UCLA marked by the political and cultural events of the 60s and whose films highlighted the tension caused by class conflict within working class African American families (a theme notably present during the scenes between J.J and his family, and via his willingness to believe he can be fully integrated within the Los Angeles police despite his background), and inspired by the Rodney King incident, Burnett decided in 1994 to tackle the issues of racism using corruption in the Los Angeles Police as a background.
However, if his intentions were definitely commendable, the result unfortunately lacks the impact similar movies had; by then, John Singleton and The Brothers Hughes had already hit audiences all around the world with their respective powerful alarm calls, Boyz’n the Hood and Menace II Society, and police corruption, both in New York and Los Angeles, had already been featured prominently in Sidney Lumet’s filmography (Serpico, Prince of the City and Q&A), and had been treated with great efficiency by Mike Figgis in Internal Affairs and William Friedkin in his underrated masterpiece To Live and Die in L.A..
Bringing these two powerful themes should have created a powerful movie but most of the time these two themes don’t manage to integrate efficiently in The Glass Shield. Despite all the elements for a powerful Crime Drama being present (moral dilemma, rejection, dirty cops, etc.), Burnett’s movie lacks real psychological depth, partly due to Boatman’s interpretation which doesn’t really transcribe J.J’s Catch-22 situation.
This is also due to the addition of other types of discrimination, mainly female discrimination but also anti-Semitism, via Lori Petty (Point Break)’s character; the fact that she is the first woman to join the Edgemar Police Department doesn’t appear particularly relevant to J.J’s story, other than obviously creating a bond between them, and their interaction sometimes tends to underwhelm the life threatening situations they are confronted to, for instance during the raid on the drug house. The Glass Shield was Burnett's second film with professional actors but his first film aimed at a wider audience. It was, and still is up to this day, his only feature film financed by a major film studio, Miramax, at the time still a relatively modest production company, compared to the major studios, but definitely on the way to becoming one of the most influential studios of the American film industry. It is not a secret that Burnett ran into some studio interference and was forced to make changes, and one can wonder if the importance of Petty’s character was not part of comprises the director had to make to please the studio…
The strength of the movie is more to be found in its cast of supporting actors, all excellent, especially Bernie Casey (Never Say Never Again), Richard Anderson (Paths of Glory), Michael Ironside (Total Recall), M. Emmett Walsh (Blood Simple) and Elliott Gould (The Long Goodbye). Their involvement saves the movie from its didactic nature and gives it the added interest that only great character actors can bring to a movie. The Glass Shield also features, and was prominently marketed around (still is…), Ice Cube in a secondary role, following his breakthrough role in Boyz’n the Hood in 1991 and a role alongside Ice-T and Bill Paxton in Walter Hill's excellent action film Trespass.
The Glass Shield is far from being a bad or uninteresting movie; it is just a frustratingly under-developed effort from an intelligent director who has something important to say.
The Glass Shield is released on Blu-ray disc by the BFI on 23rd January as a follow-up to their BLACK STAR season.
The Glass Shield is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in a very good looking 1080p transfer. Many scenes of the movie are bathed in saturated blue, red or brown light which are rendered very nicely on the disc. Dark tones are also rendered beautifully. I haven’t noticed any traces of scratches or other types of defects on the image.
The Blu-ray disc only offers a slightly underwhelming PCM 2.0 stereo audio track which features a rather significant disparity between the dialogues track and music and effects track. This doesn’t disturb the viewing of the movie but doesn’t allow experiencing it in the most optimal conditions. Apart from this minor issue, the track is rather clear with no noticeable defects or distortions.
You can also play the movie with the isolated music and effect track.
Finally, the BFI’s Blu-ray release offers optional hard-of-hearing subtitles.
The BFI has only included two bonuses in this new release: an interview of Charles Burnett and an alternative ending.
- Behind the glass shield: an interview with Charles Burnett: This is a newly filmed interview of the writer/director. Sitting on a bench in a park, Burnett remembers the events that led to his cinema career, including his time at UCLA, before explaining the origins of The Glass Shield. He also discusses the script of the movie, his relationship with Miramax, the attitude of the Los Angeles police towards Black people at the time and his latest projects. (26min)
- Alternative ending: This is an alternative, more emotionally explicit, version of the final scene between Boatman and Victoria Dillard more transparently insisting on J.J’s guilty feeling. (2min)
As usual, the BFI has also included in this release a very informative illustrated booklet discussing key elements of the movie.