' ' Cinema Romantico: The Glass Shield

Thursday, July 02, 2020

The Glass Shield

If Charles Burnett’s “The Glass Shield” put the LAPD under the microscope in the wake of the L.A. Riots (L.A. Rebellion), so too does it put Hollywood under the microscope and its penchant for conveying police departments less as assemblies of peacekeepers than renegade heroes. That lie is immediately illustrated, literally, as the film’s titles are run over panels of a fictional comic book in which a black cop saves the day. “Your shield is made of gold!” his white superior tells him. It is this sort of callow worldview that Rookie Deputy J.J. Johnson (Michael Boatman), the only person of color in the L.A. Sheriff’s office, mirroring a real person from the 1970s, initially expresses, embodied in Boatman’s eager smile and epitomized in a shot where he stands in front of his police locker, practically beaming, while a nameless cop over his shoulder in the background juggles nightsticks, like the whole thing is just some big show and he’s finally been cast. It’s also, tellingly, the only moment in “The Glass Shield” when Burnett resorts to slow motion, mocking the nominal heroism typically inherent in that device and pointedly telegraphing his renunciation of such clichés, eschewing car chases, slides over the hoods of cabs, even, swear words. And if the bad cops are portrayed with little complexity, Burnett is leaving no room for holding them up as anti-heroes, stripping away any of the violent romanticism peddled by movies like “Dirty Harry” or “Training Day”, calling a bunch of spades a bunch of spades.

If J.J. is surrounded by racists, he is also given a chance, in the department’s own kind of way, at essentially becoming colorless, coached to be one of them, “not a brother”, brought home in a traffic stop where he lets a black woman go with a warning only to have his partner track her right back down. Played with just the right amount of willful naivety, he goes along until it becomes obvious he’s being played, as the narrative coalesces around a young man, Teddy Woods (Ice Cube), pulled over just for being black and subsequently fingered for a crime he didn’t commit, leading to a trial and J.J.’s crisis of conscience. His own moral failings in the case are not written off even as he finally opens his eyes, so to speak, and takes a stand. And even when he takes a stand, Burnett forgoes the One Tough Cop fairy tale. No, J.J. works not just with the department’s only woman, Deborah Fields (Lori Petty), viewed with as much contempt as J.J., but a White whistleblower, briefly blurring those color lines, and a Black attorney (Bernie Casey) fighting for Teddy, evoking a collective as balm, similar to Burnett documentaries covered earlier this week.

If “The Glass Shield” was inspired by a true story, Burnett is less inspired by realism, preferring an almost expressionistic approach, deeming the emotion of scenes more important than authenticity. Indeed, if it begins with that clever bout of slow motion to convey J.J.’s initial callowness, Burnett then effectively utilizes color and shadow to impart J.J.’s professional descent into the muck. Using blinds to cast shadows like prison bars is not new but has rarely been deployed as memorably here, especially in an early conversation between Deborah and J.J. where she challenges him on his Pollyanna-ish attitude, as if he doesn’t even realize he’s locked himself inside and thrown away the key. This becomes even more poetically figurative later, after he’s turned against his department and is locked up to prevent him from causing further trouble. The cell is lit in a frightful, blazing orange which, contrasted against a cold blue just outside, makes him look for all the world like a person sentenced to his own personal hell.

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