ICYMI: The Glass Shield (1994)
The first time I saw Die Hard in a theater back in 1988, I was convinced of two things: (1) I had just witnessed the most awesome film of all-time and (2) I was destined to become a cop. I guess most pubescents with anger issues dream of signing up with “Johnny Law” to write their perceived wrongs, but as for me, I just wanted the action and to be a hero like John McClane. Over time, I realized that my suburban surroundings were far from any mean streets in need of protection or jumping on to the hoods of getaway cars. Additionally, my brown skin developed into a marker for any nearby patrol car looking to pull me over for the most egregious of crimes: Driving While Hispanic. Thankfully, I have lived to tell the tales of numerous uncalled for harassment by LEOs (Law Enforcement Officers) and both my respect for police and desire to join their ranks slowly extinguished.
With this in mind, I think it’s a good time to re-visit 1994’s The Glass Shield. From writer-director Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, To Sleep With Anger) comes this powerful and surprisingly overlooked take on the sobering racial politics of the modern day police force. The film is sharp, tense, and while justice is seen as prevailing it is viewed as more of a fluke and inconvenience than anything righteous or uplifting. And like most films I have recommended over the past three months, it gets more and more timely with each passing day.
The film follows the first days on the job for rookie L.A. Deputy Sheriff J.J. Johnson (Michael Boatman). We learn he is one of the only, if not the first, black officer in this division. In a scene reminiscent of Black KKKlansman, a few fellow white officers are puzzled by his presence and think he is using the wrong entrance. He also makes the acquaintance of Deputy Deborah Fields (Lori Petty), the division’s only female. After a tense introduction, they easily bond over both being seen as outsiders in this world.
The tone for J.J.’s work is set by the Watch Commander (Richard Anderson) who chides him for paperwork that includes spelling and grammatical errors. You can definitely feel the bigoted overtones. Some time passes and we watch as J.J. gradually settles into his police career. He is neither accepted nor outwardly spurned. Things are no easier at home where his girlfriend and family can’t understand why he would join a force known for brutality and zero tolerance for the African American community.
One night, a fellow deputy (Don Harvey) makes a somewhat questionable stop of Teddy Woods (none other than Ice Cube). J.J., who is nearby, responds and backs his fellow officers when a gun is found under the driver’s seat. Woods cries set-up when he is booked for the murder of an affluent woman. J.J. initially thinks it’s a cut and dried case, and even gets on the good side of his fellow officers for “backing their play.” Soon, J.J. finds himself reluctantly digging for the truth, only to find himself legally complicit for his initial bad judgment. In one sense, justice is served but the film does wonder at what price and if there is a place for honest black officers in any major metropolitan city.
While the plot of The Glass Shield is far from original or surprising, filmmaker Burnett directs with a lingering air of edginess and pressure. There are shocking moments of violence, particular a shootout before the third act, and the film finds a way to be engagingly dramatic without becoming too preachy or cliched.
Michael Boatman, who is best known for his work in sitcoms like Spin City and Arliss is astonishingly effective in a rare lead, dramatic role. His J.J. is just the right balance of naïve and hopeful and yet begrudgingly realistic. It is through his eyes that we see the true colors of all the perpetrators in this vast conspiracy. Equally powerful is Lori Petty. Anyone who has seen her in films like Point Break and A League of Their Own are aware of her range and emotional vulnerability. While her character’s journey is different than J.J.’s, she shares in his frustration and when push comes to shove proves herself to be just as tough, if not tougher, than her male counterparts.
I know that criticizing police and their tactics nowadays has become both fair game and an easy target but a film like The Glass Shield still warrants viewing. It is a glaring reminder of the systemic racism prevalent in our society (as if we needed another reminder) and the long road ahead for any sense of equality. I also find it mildly ironic that this tale of rampant corruption and discriminatory justice was released just a few months before the trial of O.J. Simpson. Just some food for thought...