Movie Review – The Glass Shield

The Glass Shield (1994)
Written by Charles Burnett, John Eddie Johnson, and Ned Welsh
Directed by Charles Burnett

Charles Burnett continued making movies after My Brother’s Wedding, despite it being taken away from him in the editing room. In 1990, he directed what is arguably his best film ever, To Sleep With Anger, which I previously reviewed. That was my introduction to Burnett a few years ago, coming across this movie I’d never heard of with Danny Glover. The 1990s for Black filmmakers was an extremely fruitful period. Directors like Spike Lee & John Singleton found enormous fame and opportunities. People who worked on their films in various production capacities also emerged as writers & directors. Burnett was clearly aware of the types of movies finding a foothold with audiences, stories of the Black experience, especially regarding racism. But none of the pictures Hollywood was making ever really zeroed in on the most insidious problem in these communities, but Burnett sure as hell was going to talk about it.

J.J. Johnson (Michael Boatman) has just joined the LA County Sheriff’s Department. Because he’s a rookie & Black, he’s met with a lot of racism and suspicion that he’s “on their side.” He has some run-ins with Deputy Fields (Lori Petty), the only woman in the department and thus the only other minority, but they eventually form a bond over being the outsiders in this white male-dominated institution. On a traffic stop, Johnson backs up Bono, his partner who is hassling Teddy (Ice Cube), a Black man. They run Teddy’s license and find he has a warrant, and Teddy confesses to having his uncle’s handgun in the glove box. Teddy is arrested, and later the department decides to tie him to an unsolved murder. The victim’s husband, Mr. Greenspan (Eliott Gould), claims she was the victim of a botched carjacking; she was shot in the head, sitting right next to him in the vehicle. The cops pressure Teddy to confess, but his lawyer knows they are simply trying to close a case. There’s also an ongoing community campaign to bring the “suicide” of another Black man in the county jail to light. 

The police begin coordinating their story and casting glares at Johnson, unsure if he will “back his brothers.” Johnson wants to be accepted by this fraternity and goes along, drawing ire from his girlfriend, parents, and community, who see that he’s turning his back on Black people. Johnson comes to a crossroads, realizing he could be responsible for Teddy getting the death penalty. He ends up relying on Fields and another whistleblower in the department to find the evidence and bring it to the public. But the police aren’t going to go down very easily; if they are, they will take as many of the people they perceive as “traitors” with them.

Nothing about The Glass Shield feels like a relic; if anything, it feels more relevant now than it did at its release. Clearly inspired by the savage beating of Rodney King and the subsequent acquittal of the cops who attempted to murder him, Burnett is rightfully enraged. Unfortunately, I think he tries to tackle one too many topics throughout the movie, so the themes become muddled. However, I was in awe at the audacity to make a movie that pulls no punches on how rotten & fascist the police genuinely are. No wonder this movie didn’t get wider distribution because it goes against the demands of those in power. Compare this to a film like Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman, a piece of police apologia that gives us a Black hero cop who fights the Klan. Once upon a time, Lee had something interesting to say about race, but that time passed a few hundred million dollars ago. 

The recent murder of Tyre Nichols in Memphis at the hands of police has been an interesting moment in the discourse of the police in the States. Because many of the officers involved were Black, there is this confusion among some whites if the murder was racist. Yes, it was. The men who killed Nichols were wearing the racist uniform. They are race traitors, class traitors, and traitors to the human race. In the same way, working-class people can be pitted against each other by convincing some of them to become brownshirt fascists; the same is possible with race. It doesn’t surprise me that many white people are confused by this; the American white is clearly decreasing in average mental competence on an annual basis, accelerated by COVID, which reminded them the bubble of the States is much thinner than they realized. 

Once upon a time in the United States, there were lush public parks, even with amusement park rides and nice public pools for a dip in the summer. Then desegregation happened, and white people decided they would rather destroy all of these lovely things & never make more than allow Black people to enjoy them. So, some Black people who have found dead-end after dead-end make alliances with white systems of power, thinking maybe they can climb the ladder that way. America loves stomping out the chance of solidarity with all communities, and damn if they haven’t done a spectacular job of it. Truly a craven masterpiece of inhumanity. Bravo. 

I’m sure some viewers of The Glass Shield have thought this was just conspiracy theory nonsense, but the police are rife with conspiracy. That term has intentionally become so associated with insane theories like Bigfoot or flat earthism that we have forgotten that conspiracies are real. A conspiracy is simply a secret plan by a group of people to do something unlawful. The police engage in conspiracy every hour of the day in the United States. They collude on false testimony, plant evidence, kill witnesses, steal drugs from the evidence locker, and sell them themselves. The police are simply the criminal cartel the State chooses to finance because they have agreed that this institution of fascist violence will protect the property of the rich. These are just fundamental truths that take zero leaps in logic to understand. As white people, we deny them because we were indoctrinated to believe that the police are “the good guys.” In the wake of 9/11, the status of the police was bumped up to godhood so that those in power could make them more violent & militaristic towards a population that is growing restless.

Burnett is bitter yet funny here. He also isn’t making a fantasy about the bad guy being defeated. Our protagonist achieves a small victory, but the ending coda tells us that while this unit under investigation is disbanded, all the officers involved are reassigned. So what do you think is happening in their new homes? The same shit. It’s the same structure as the Church, moving clergy around after they get caught raping children and never really reforming the institution because they like it the way it is. What they don’t like are scrutiny and accountability. Same with the cops. 

I think the script could have used some tightening up, though. Some characters feel more critical but drift out of the story because Burnett wants to focus his attention elsewhere. That can make for a movie whose pace feels stuttered. Yet, I admire it for laying out such an honest & radical position on something the rest of American movies won’t touch. There are bad cops in other films, but they are often shown as “bad apples,” and there are always many good cops. I do like that Burnett points out even before the discourse on representation took off in America that there are some institutions where Black faces are only used to obscure the reality of the deeply embedded racism. It’s more horrific when Black people can be convinced to turn on each other by giving them the uniform & power of white violence. It’s a twisted thing to do to a group of people who have endured far more than white people could ever handle. I’m happy Burnett had the guts to come out and say these things.


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