Filmmaker Charles Burnett's Glass Shield
With his newest film, The Glass Shield, writer-director Charles Burnett continues to defy definition. If you see the trailer for this movie, you might think it's a low-budget Lethal Weapon, since it features a salt-and-pepper cop team (black Michael Boatman and white Lori Petty). Or perhaps a police thriller with an affirmative action accent, since it's about an African-American officer in a white sheriff's department who finds bad guys both on the street and working beside him. But this is a cop movie with a difference--it's more poetry than police procedural, and it lacks good guys in the usual sense. Burnett's last movie, To Sleep with Anger, was among the freshest and most subtly nuanced portraits of family and neighborhood folkways in recent black cinema. The reputation of that urban fable has grown since it sank commercially in 1990, a fate that I hope does not await The Glass Shield. Everything about this movie is a surprise, from the comic-book titles sequence that illustrates a young black man's dream of being a cop, to its ironic final shot of him, in tears, sobbing good-bye to that dream forever. The young man in question is J.J. Johnson (Boatman) and he is that rare African-American movie character with not only a dream but a dream life. And therein lies the marvel of The Glass Shield. Though Burnett has drawn its plot from real life, he has transformed the headlines into something more than docudrama. The inspiration for J.J. was John Eddie Johnson, a black cop who assisted in a corruption investigation of his own mostly white sheriff's department in California in 1980--and who became, in the end, one of the investigation's only victims. Burnett mixes the facts of the Johnson case with references to Rodney King, and to several recent cases in which white murderers blamed their crimes on imaginary black perpetrators. Burnett's J.J. is a likable but not particularly clever guy, who imagines himself part of a thin blue line between good and evil, the hero of a gold-badge fantasy. "Lucky you, you're going to make history," he's told when he goes straight from the Academy into an all-white Los Angeles Sheriff's station. There he is met with wariness and indifference, but also camaraderie, once the guys impress on him their code: "You're one of us, J.J.; you're not a brother." Desperate to be one of the guys and eager to believe they've got the right man, J.J. colludes in the framing of a black suspect named Teddy (another solid performance from rapper Ice Cube) for the murder of a white woman. J.J. agrees to back up his white partner, offering perjured testimony claiming that Teddy was stopped for a traffic violation and not, as was actually the case, because he fit a racial profile. Only when J.J. is slapped in the face with unmistakable signs of major tampering with evidence does he decide to expose his partner and his superiors. Overcoming his own suspicions, he forms an uneasy alliance with Deborah (Petty), the only woman officer in the station; together, the two put their jobs--and even possibly their lives--on the line. For the white boys, J. J. and Deborah are an affirmative-action nightmare come true--a black man and a white woman teamed up against the guys in an attempt to destroy the department and its racist ways. But, in the probe that follows, J.J.'s relatively minor perjury proves his undoing; the more serious evildoers cut a deal with the prosecutors. Burnett is not overly concerned with the melodrama of muckraking, even when the exposure of graft and racism becomes a major engine of the story. The Glass Shield is, rather, a character study, and one as complex as anything Hollywood has produced this year. J.J.'s quest for identity is its heart, and Burnett takes a subjective, even meditative, view of his struggle. The movie is shot in the brash primary hues and dramatic angles of comic books, its deeply shadowed interiors alternating with the pitiless glare of California streets. An inside/outside schism is built into the very structure of The Glass Shield. The movie unfolds from J.J.'s subjective, blinkered view of his world. It's a disarming, almost disorienting implosion of movie conventions. J.J.'s isolation is emphasized in shots of the station that always seem to find him coming around a corner as a conversation breaks up, or daydreaming alone at his desk. As the story proceeds, and J.J. begins to resist and expose the deceit and graft he witnesses, his isolation takes on a more ominous tone. Michael Boatman played the pensive morgue attendant dressing the fatalities of Vietnam in TV's China Beach, and he projects the same otherworldly curiosity in his performance as J.J., tinged with a vaguely paranoid desperation. Petty, with her angular face and knife-edge eyes, provides the perfect complement to Boatman's soft and mercurial openness. Burnett also manages to draw subtle and strangely wonderful performances from a raft of Central Casting stalwarts, including M. Emmet Walsh, Michael Ironside, Linden Chiles, and, most notably, Richard Anderson, the Six-Million-Dollar Man's old supervisor. As Chief Massey, Anderson exudes a certain weary corruption, grandly lamenting the lack of people "who fit in," riding J.J. for spelling errors in his reports, misting up over a gift from his men. He's a complex and even at times a sympathetic figure, hardly a cartoon villain. Indeed, nobody in The Glass Shield fits into the simple, boring rules that govern the typical police drama. J.J. himself can be monumentally insensitive, especially when it comes to his patient girlfriend Barbara. At a family dinner, when his mother chides him to marry her before she gets tired of waiting, J.J. smugly replies, "Barbara isn't going anywhere." Burnett frames the scene with Barbara facing the camera, the others behind her, so that only we see the pain register in her face. That Burnett can find the hurtfulness in his protagonist and the oddly sympathetic moments in his villains is a major part of what makes The Glass Shield so unlike the kind of "entertainment" we expect to see in a movie theater. That's why Burnett seems a conundrum to Hollywood--and, unfortunately, to audiences (black and white) weaned on Die Hard or the carefully programmed "eccentricities" of Forrest Gump. Some have suggested that the distributors of To Sleep with Anger botched its release, booking it as an art house film and losing that elusive "black audience" that might have flocked to the movie had it been more widely advertised. Perhaps. The Glass Shield is not exactly a "mainstream" film, either, but Miramax, the Disney subsidiary that scored so big with Pulp Fiction, is releasing The Glass Shield in a few hundred theaters this summer. It's still not clear, though, that American audiences are quite ready for Charles Burnett. Ultimately, the psychological whodunit inside J.J.'s head in The Glass Shield is about the good guys and the bad guys in each one of us, but even more so about the special duality inside the outsider. It reminds me of what W.E.B. Du Bois called in 1903 the black man's "double self." J.J. is still, 92 years after Du Bois wrote these words, engaged in the strife that Du Bois asserted is the history of his race in America--"this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self."