JJ (Michael Boatman) is a young black man and rookie deputy with the LA Sheriff’s Department. He’s just graduated the academy and is placed at a station with a questionable history. JJ has always wanted to be a police officer and is thrilled to be out on the streets. Almost immediately JJ starts to feel the weight of his colleagues’ casual racism as well as more overt, direct prejudice from his watch commander, Massey (Richard Anderson).
Also in the department is Deputy Deborah Fields (Lori Petty), the only female officer in the station. The two bond and their friendship is forged through shared experience, Fields also subject to prejudice and derision. When JJ is involved in the not-entirely-legal arrest of another young black man, Teddy (Ice Cube) and he lies to justify the stop and search, the other officers finally start to accept him. Teddy becomes a suspect in the murder of a white woman and it’s through this that JJ finally starts to question his own culpability in the racism and institutional abuse going on around him.
As a film, The Glass Shield has quite a few issues; it’s overloaded with themes that struggle for space. Following the opening stretch that establishes the story, it settles into a fairly mundane court room drama for a good chunk of the movie. It’s not the most cinematic of films and often has more than a whiff of overlong TV movie about it. The villains of the film (and they’re clearly villains) could be twirling moustaches if they had them, such is their wickedness.
Recently included in the BFI’s Black Star slate of releases, there’s a reason why The Glass Shield has been resurrected after spending much of the past two decades more or less forgotten since it’s 1995 debut. Dense as those various themes are, they’re just as relevant now as they were 20 years ago. Endemic racism and how black suspects are perceived and treated by police is still a huge problem in America.
Similarly, many people no longer have trust in their police force, and the idea that officers would work together behind the scenes to change evidence and put possibly innocent people in jail is not outlandish and a real concern that still permeates.
It’s these themes, and some fine performances from the central cast, that elevates The Glass Shield to a film worth reassessing. Despite the artwork, Ice Cube has limited screen time, and much of the film rests on Boatman’s wide-eyed JJ. He’s up to the task and convinces as a man watching his dream collapse around him and slowly becoming disgusted at what he himself will do to fit in. He’s ably supported by Petty and always-good character actors like Michael Ironside, M. Emmet Walsh and Elliot Gould.
Writer and director Charles Burnett made a solid, angry call for police to be better and more accountable, and it’s a call that's still resonant and probably more important today than when it first came out.
THE GLASS SHIELD / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: CHARLES BURNETT / SCREENPLAY: JOHN EDDIE JOHNSON, NED WELSH / STARRING: MICHAEL BOATMAN, RICHARD ANDERSON, LORI PETTY, ICE CUBE, DON HARVEY, BERNIE CASEY / RELEASE DATE: JANUARY 23RD