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‘The Glass Shield’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 02, 1995

Charles Burnett's "The Glass Shield" is a topical but otherwise unremarkable police drama about an idealistic rookie officer working in a corrupt sheriff's station in Los Angeles County.

Having grown up on a steady diet of cop comic books, J.J. (Michael Boatman, from TV's "China Beach") decides to join the thin blue line. His head is full of dreams of heroic shootouts and last-second rescues, but he soon discovers that there's almost as much paperwork to being a policeman as there is action. Worse, when he is out on the street, he often finds himself in the awkward position of backing up fellow officers as they shake down innocent black men on the flimsiest of excuses.

Naturally, J.J.—the station's first black officer—is shocked by the casual lawlessness of his fellow cops, all of whom are white. At the same time, he's aware that the police are fighting a losing battle, and that if the end is a more peaceful community, almost any means is justified. When a local pastor charges that a black prisoner was murdered while in police custody, public opinion turns against the department, and the confused young cop is caught in the middle. As far as his fellow officers are concerned, there can be no debate as to where J.J.'s loyalty should fall: He is a cop now—one of them.

A fellow officer asks J.J. to back him up in court on the arrest of a young black teenager (Ice Cube), and he immediately agrees, even though the man was innocently pumping gas when the rogue cop swooped in for the kill. In what seems like the blink of an eye, a gun is found in the car and the man taken downtown, where it's discovered that his weapon is the same one used in the slaying of a Jewish woman.

Though based on an actual case, "The Glass Shield" doesn't feel very actual in either style or content. Also, it's a buyer's market as far as cop dramas go, and with shows such as "Homicide," "Law & Order" and "NYPD Blue" around, Burnett's contribution can't compete with what's on television. That's because there is so little real electricity in the filmmaking and no special insight into police life. A station house like the one depicted here is a world unto itself, with strict codes of conduct and a distinct social order. But though Burnett gives us a peek inside the brotherhood of police, his interest in nailing them as racist thugs is greater than his desire to discover the telling particulars of their subculture.

An eye for this sort of human detail is what we would expect from the director of "To Sleep With Anger," a film that displayed a deft feel for the subtle eccentricities of character and story. "The Glass Shield" certainly isn't brainless or empty; it has both ideas and a point of view. But the ideas are far from new, and the point of view is blatantly knee-jerk.

The Glass Shield is rated PG-13.

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