The Glass Shield
African-American cinema’s relationship to the American mainstream is kind of like Halley’s comet; it’s always there, it’s just not always visible. Charles Burnett’s career has lasted long enough to intersect with two major movements in black cinema; he may yet connect with the ongoing one. After all, a lot of the most acclaimed contemporary black American directors and showrunners – Issa Rae, Donald Glover, Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees, Barry Jenkins – are in varying degrees indebted to the LA Rebellion, the movement Burnett helped found in the late 1970s.
The LA Rebellion aimed to forge a new path for black American storytellers, one that dealt with ordinary life in a poetic way and spurned the cliches of the waning Blaxploitation movement. Its signature film was Burnett’s debut, Killer of Sheep. Killer of Sheep takes the skeleton of a standard one-last-job crime film and buries it within a thick haze of dreamlike, observational neighbourhood scenes. It would, in time, be hailed alongside Badlands and Eraserhead as one of the most original American debuts of the 1970s, but problems with music clearance kept it from receiving wider distribution. By the start of the 1990s, his cult following was starting to grow – but trends in black American film were starting to swing back towards the ghetto narratives Burnett had initially been reacting against.
After 1990’s well-received To Sleep With Anger Burnett attempted to insert himself into the new wave of African-American films with The Glass Shield, now reissued by the BFI as part of their Black Star season. The poster art, showing Ice Cube scowling over flashing police lights, certainly seemed to offer plenty for the audience who thrilled to Boyz n the Hood. In the end, Burnett’s film might have been too measured and forensic a dissection of institutional racism to connect with the angry, rebellious mood of the times. That’s not a demerit, though. Watching it now, it’s amazing how contemporary it feels.
Based on true events, The Glass Shield follows JJ, an almost painfully green, eager-to-please police officer played compellingly by The Good Wife’s Michael Boatman. Keen not to rock the boat, he goes along with his fellow officers even when he recognises a not-quite-buried racism in their actions. It is this desire to fit in that implicates him in the wrongful arrest of Teddy Woods (Ice Cube), forcing him to turn to a fellow outsider, the Jewish Deborah Fields (Lori Petty) to crack the case.
There are moments in The Glass Shield which are as broad and pulpy as the comic book panels JJ pores over in the film’s opening credits. That comic, though, ends with a black police officer being hailed as a hero by stopping a bullet. Burnett doesn’t dwell on it, but JJ is internalising a very damaging idea here; the idea that black men can only be heroes through self-sacrifice. At every turn, JJ’s desire to do the right thing leads him further towards self-defeat, an idea that reaches fruition in an alternative ending Burnett shot but found too despairing. It’s included as an extra here, along with an illuminating interview with Burnett covering his UCLA student days, his thoughts on Black Lives Matter and the problems of getting a racially incisive neo-noir through the studio system.
It might be that the audience for an Ice Cube film in 1994 weren’t ready to feel sympathy for a cop, even an idealistic black one. Burnett’s brilliance is that he can feel sympathy for anyone – even his main villain isn’t purely hateful. He’s depicted as working in a bad system, suffering from cancer, needing a big payday for his wife and children – is it his fault young black men make such perfect fall guys? (And ones played by Ice Cube, at that – for all his casting was a commercial necessity Burnett enjoyed working with him and is clearly having fun playing with his AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted image)
Elsewhere Burnett indulges in a colour gel-fuelled high style reminiscent of Michael Mann, and even squeezes in some magic-hour visual poetry that calls back to his debut film. The plot mechanics of The Glass Shield mean it can’t be a community portrait in the manner of Killer of Sheep, but he still finds room for an impressive supporting cast including Elliott Gould, M Emmet Walsh, and Wanda de Jesus. He also has a rare talent for finding the simple, iconic image that encapsulates a scene, such as the long track in on Gould during a court hearing. Underneath its popcorn-movie surface, there’s a lot of nuanced, astute things going on in The Glass Shield – an auteur piece in its truest sense.