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The Glass Shield

Black filmmaking exploded in the early 1990s, kick-started by precocious indie directors like Spike Lee and John Singleton, and solidified as a considerable market force genre with the leap of energetic and angry hip-hop and gangsta culture into both movie narratives and aesthetics. Charles Burnett, however, was laboring in the relative Siberia of pre-'90s African American independent film while Lee and Singleton were still running around in figurative short pants. With his first feature in 1977, Burnett may have earned some deference due seniority, but it wasn't until after Lee began blazing a path of commercial success that Burnett was able to peek, briefly, out of obscurity, culminating with his acclaimed 1994 drama The Glass Shield. Michael Boatman (who later co-starred in the popular sit-com "Spin City") stars as John Johnson, an idealistic, black rookie cop promoted — with a suggestion of political correctness — to a close-knit California State Trooper unit. Anxious to make a good impression and desperate to excel in law enforcement, Johnson weathers race-tinted hazing from his all-white colleagues and superiors, and is marginalized along with the unit's only female deputy, Deb (Lori Petty). Sensing an opportunity to break into the unit's exclusive inner circle, Johnson offers to lie in a report to support a fellow officer's unlawful arrest, but this seemingly minor slip of integrity soon finds Johnson embroiled in an unraveling web of high-level corruption. The Glass Shield was ideally suited for success, coming out of an American culture still reeling from riots ignited by the acquittal of police videotaped beating Rodney King, and released in the midst of O.J. Simpson's racially-charged, corruption-themed murder trial. And yet, The Glass Shield, while timely and enthusiastically reviewed by sympathetic critics, barely mustered a tap on the movie-going consciousness. Why? Burnett is a mannered director and his awkwardly overheated style, pre-dating the kinetic aesthetics of the 1990s, is too stagey. As a writer, he is even less adept, extracting only a muddled story from an equally muddled polemic (Burnett adapted from an unproduced "true crime" screenplay by John Eddie Johnson and Ned Welsh, skillfully removing all traces of realism), and the static, thinly sketched characters are jumped around like passive pieces in Burnett's rhetorical game of moral checkers. For the most part, The Glass Shield is salvaged only by its decent cast, which, despite the bonkers Petty, is very strong. Boatman is likable, even though his character is dimwitted and feckless, and Ice Cube shows his charisma in the prosaic role of an innocent accused of murder. The ensemble gets even stronger in the less savory characters, with veterans like Michael Ironside, M. Emmett Walsh, and Richard Anderson (a.k.a. Oscar Goldman from "The Six Million Dollar Man") as corruption incarnate. Also involved are the reliable Elliot Gould, Tommy Hicks, Bernie Casey, and Don Harvey. Sadly, The Glass Shield fares even worse 10 years later, following a decade of increasingly sophisticated police and courtroom procedural dramas on television, exposing Burnett's supposedly incendiary, "truth-to-power" plotting as hopelessly naive and frequently verging into ridiculousness. Buena Vista/Miramax presents The Glass Shield in a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. This "Collector's Series" edition includes a commentary with Burnett and composer Stephen James Taylor, plus brief interview segments with each. Trailer, keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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