The Glass Shield is directed by Charles Burnett, arguably the most important independent American Black filmmaker of all time. He went to UCLA, and his first film, Killer of Sheep, is considered by many to be the best film ever made by an African-American filmmaker. Burnett has worked in feature films and documentaries throughout the years, and The Glass Shield is probably his most widely seen film, and perhaps the most “commercial.” It appeared at the time of the rise in Black films in the early 90s, when Spike Lee and John Singleton were making waves. Harvey Weinstein initially tried to sell it as a Boyz in the Hood kind of film, with the focus on Ice Cube’s small but important role, despite pushback from the director.
The movie centres on a rookie cop, John “J.J.”’ Johnson, played by Michael Boatman. Johnson is in the LA Sheriff’s Department and experiences tensions with the rest of the otherwise white police force. He starts a friendship with the lone female deputy, Deborah Fields (Lori Petty), who is also facing discrimination from the all-male police force. Johnson’s world turns upside down when he backs up his fellow deputy Bono when Bono stops someone just because he’s Black. The man, Teddy Woods, is played by Ice Cube. There is an unlawful search, and Woods is then arrested on dodgy murder and robbery charges, accused of killing the wife of Mr. Greenspan (Elliot Gould). The force tries to pin the killing on the Black guy, and J.J. lies on the stand—but starts wondering if he made the right decision. He then uncovers a massive conspiracy by the police, which includes the murder of a Black prisoner and covering up paedophilia.
Supposedly based on a true case that happened in Florida, which has a well-known history of racism among the police, the film came out a year before the O.J. Simpson case and that adds to the interest for viewers. Obviously O.J. DID commit his crime, but the conduct of the LAPD during the case was unacceptable (the main police officer involved in the investigation was revealed to be a massive racist). With what’s happened with Black Lives Matter in the past few years, these issues have become even more prominent but at Burnett says in his interview they have always been there.
It doesn’t quite have the energy of some of the other films of that time, but that was deliberate—it’s equally as angry, but subtle and thoughtful. Although the main actor isn’t that great in the film, the supporting cast is really strong. Ice Cube has one of best roles as the innocent Woods, who probably does have some criminal activity in his past, adding to the complexity. Elliot Gould is fantastic as always, and Michael Ironside as one of the racist cops is another great character actor. Emmett Walsh is also in it, and is always good.
The film was shot by Elliot Davis, who shot a lot of Stephen Soderberg’s early films as well. He was intrigued by the film when he found out that Burnett wanted to use a lot of blue. His style as a cinematographer is naturalistically expressionistic. Burnett uses the motif of a comic book in the opening which is interesting way to symbolises J. J.’s naivety when he first joins the force. The lighting, especially of the night scenes, is artificial-looking and one scene clearly uses rear projection.
The BFI releases includes the film on both Blu-Ray and DVD. The main feature on the disc is an interview with the director about his background, the making of the film, and the political context of the film then and now. An alternative ending is also included—but viewers will understand why Burnett went back and reshot the ending, as the alternative was way too over the top. The release is finished off with booklet with writing by Bridget Minamore.