This is a good example of a filmmaker having his heart set so firmly in the right place, he couldn’t see beyond it. One cannot dispute that writer and director Charles Burnett’s 1994 movie “The Glass Shield” is well meaning, but it’s such an overly obvious morality tale that it gets preachy in its first ten minutes and never lets up for a second thereafter. It tackles the hard questions of black, white, racist, and sexist issues, and if it said more about these subjects that we didn’t already know, it might have worked. As it is, the movie is still engrossing, even when we pretty much understand from the start where the story is heading and how it’s going to get there; so maybe on merit the film is a toss-up.
The movie’s main character, Johnny “J.J.” Johnson, grew up idolizing cops and always wanted to be one when he grew up. After graduating from the police academy, he gets his first chance at law enforcement when he’s assigned to the Edgemar Sheriff’s Station. He is the only black man in an all-white outfit.
Not only are the officers at the Edgemar Station racists, they are clearly sexists, too, as we learn when the station is coincidentally assigned its first and only woman officer, Deputy Deborah Fields (Lori Petty). Both Johnson and Fields feel the pressure of trying to succeed against the odds. But that’s not all. It’s bad enough the cops at Edgemar are racist and sexist from the Watch Commander (Richard Anderson) on down, they’re incredibly, unredeemably, unrepentantly corrupt as well. They take bribes; they beat prisoners; they protect high-ranking town officials who do wrong; they even murder people they don’t like. But nothing is done about them because they have only themselves to look into their own internal affairs. They always seem to clear their station of any misconduct. I told you the filmmakers pile it on. And just because the police force is corrupt, don’t think it exempts the all-white town council, who look the other way at their police force’s wrongdoing.
To make matters worse, Edgemar serves a racially diverse community, and blacks are dying in police custody with increasing frequency. Now, understand, everything portrayed in “The Glass Shield” has regrettably happened at one time or another and undoubtedly continues to happen to some degree in various parts of the country right up to the present. But for such obvious transgressions to be occurring so blatantly and with such regularity as depicted in this film is more than a bit hard to imagine in this day and age. If we are to take the film as an argument for unequivocal justice in racial and sexual integration, it surely makes a strong case, but it does so at the expense of a viewer’s having to swallow a good deal of exaggeration to follow its points.
In any case, J.J. wants to be a good cop; he’s dedicated and tries to fit in with his fellow officers. The filmmakers are not so one-sided as to suggest that J.J. is perfect. In his effort to conform to station policy, J.J. does what is expected of all the cops in his precinct–he protects his own. He lies to cover for a fellow officer when the officer hassles and harasses a black man for no reason.
Teddy Woods (Ice Cube) is minding his own business when he’s stopped and arrested for an outstanding traffic violation and for possession of a gun in his car. The cops have an unsolved murder on their hands, a white woman who, according to her husband (Elliott Gould), was shot and killed by a black man. The police have no leads, so they decide to frame Teddy. No reason; they’re just evil, the most evil of the bunch being police detectives Baker and Hall (Michael Ironside and M. Emmet Walsh). Wouldn’t you know Ironside would be playing a villain again.
When J.J. finds out about the frame-up, what course will he follow?
Most of the movie takes place in the courtroom, with Bernie Casey and Wanda De Jesus playing Teddy’s crusading attorneys and Erich Anderson playing the sniveling, morally deficient District Attorney. Then, just to be sure we know what side we as an audience are supposed to be on, the filmmakers make the preliminary judge in the case a snarly white man, obviously feeling no sympathy for blacks, and the presiding judge for the case a white woman of great compassion and understanding. No detail goes unnoticed in the film’s attempt to stack the deck against racists and sexists everywhere. Well, they deserve what the film dishes out, but the audience deserves something a little less heavy-handed.
The movie is well put together, well photographed, and slickly produced. It moves along at a healthy clip and for all its one-sidedness develops a sense of urgency and excitement even though we know how things are going to turn out.
Oh, and the filmmakers have the good sense to explain the title, “The Glass Shield,” by the end of the picture. A small favor.
While the Buena Vista engineers do as much they can using a high bit-rate, anamorphic widescreen transfer to ensure the film’s original print looks good, the result is not quite as pristine as one could want. The picture measures out close to its theatrical-release dimensions, here measuring approximately a 1.76:1 ratio, enough to fill a widescreen television with no black bars top or bottom. The colors are deep and fairly rich, diminished by a slight grain, a small degree of roughness, and a few shimmering lines. Indoor shots can be a touch murky, despite a strong black level, and outdoor shots in bright daylight are especially troublesome, displaying an occasional oversaturation that turns facial tones close to purple. It’s not a bad picture quality, but not ideal, either.
OK, now before you get all huffy and look down your noise at a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtrack, consider that the audio is one of the best things about this release. The sound is extremely dynamic, extremely wide ranging, and extremely clear. The only thing missing is much in the way of rear-channel activity, which really isn’t necessary in a drama dealing mostly in dialogue.
The most important bonus item is an audio commentary with writer/director Charles Burnett and composer Stephen James Taylor. Together, they offer some good insights into the film’s purpose and creation. They can be too obvious in some in some instances (“There’s Bernie Casey”), but they also share filmmaking decisions we might not have known otherwise. For example, the director tells us that the opening title sequence, a comic-book spread, was meant to show how “J.J.” grew up idolizing good guys and how the comics influenced his decision to become a police officer. The trouble is that I didn’t understand that meaning while I was watching the movie, and I had the feeling listening to Burnett that he regretted not making the matter more apparent. Next is a ten-minute “Conversation with Charles Burnett” that repeats a good deal of what the director says in the audio commentary (or vice versa). That’s followed by a thirteen-minute segment, “Film Scoring with Stephen James Taylor,” in which the composer explains how and why he wrote his music for the film. The extras conclude with twenty-one scene selections and a chapter insert; a fullscreen theatrical trailer; English and Spanish spoken languages; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Credit writer/director Burnett for having the courage of his convictions, even if the outcome is a film that a lot of people will see as clichéd and stereotyped. “The Glass Shield” goes overboard in its desire to do the right thing in exposing racism, sexism, and cronyism in high places by presenting it in too simplistic terms. Yet for all that, the story is gripping and the acting first-rate. Even if you haven’t seen the movie before, it’s like visiting an old friend, and watching it unfold can only have a positive effect, in any case. You could do worse.