The most dangerous trap a filmmaker can fall into while making a movie concerned with racism is losing a sense of balance. Whether it be stacking the deck in favor of the black community by making the white people little more than caricatures, or treating the white people with too much ambivalence, a lack of balance can and will destroy any sense of true meaning and consideration behind the film’s craft and message. So it is immensely gratifying to see the triumph of The Glass Shield, a film that carefully creates its environment to issue a condemnation of police corruption while elucidating how all involved, to some degree, contribute to this climate for good and ill.
The main gambit that The Glass Shield uses is that it is not truly about the protagonist, Deputy J.J. Johnson (Michael Boatman) at all. Though he is the most active force throughout the movie, after the first act or so Burnett largely breaks from his viewpoint, moving to focus on the main narrative: the trial of Teddy Woods (Ice Cube), a man who has been purposefully and wrongly charged with the murder of a white woman. But this first act is vital in its lucid development of the police force and its effect on J.J., laying out his indoctrination as a domino-like series of events. Crucially, the film quickly drops any attempts to make J.J. a clear, defined martyr or a perfect individual. He is shown as perfectly willing to initially become a better and more efficient individual, subjugating himself to the corrupt machine. Boatman’s performance also undergoes a metamorphosis, as the perpetually smiling rookie becomes a serious man before the viewer can even register the change.
But as mentioned before, this is much more than the story of J.J. Johnson, and the surprisingly robust supporting cast is weaved seamlessly into the narrative. Burnett manages a wide assortment of narrative strands, sometimes teasing out each one in small fragments that, at first blush, seem entirely disconnected. Most notably, the character of Deputy Deborah Fields (Lori Petty in a confident performance) acts as an unexpected corollary to the film’s focus on racism, illustrating how the police environment is a place of widespread discrimination as well as providing a strong, caring ally in Johnson’s investigation. In the court, the defense lawyer James Locket (Bernie Casey) and Justice Lewis (Natalija Nogulich) are perhaps the most morally good of the main characters, both dedicated to their professions with no small sense of professionalism and fairness.
Aside from the comic book opening that illustrates Johnson’s idyllic fantasies of being a police officer and some noticeable forward tracking shots, Burnett’s approach is relatively simple here, albeit stunningly shot by Elliot Davis. The Glass Shield is largely in tight close-ups that never feel suffocating, heightening the intensity while still remaining balanced with some of the incredible silhouette-esque shots that Burnett sprinkles throughout. Special attention is paid to the camera angles, which consistently look up at the authority figures, whether they be the higher ranking police officers or the people of the court.
The Glass Shield is by no means a noir, as it is perhaps too spread across various points of view to create a true sense of paranoia and distrust (especially in the scenes that follow minor characters). But it is unflinching in how it both shows the nastiness of the antagonists, which is conveyed often through a single word or phrase in their conversations, as well as their human side, most notably a birthday celebration and the attempts to save the life of one of their own. In the end, the film ends on a melancholic note, yet one with a sufficient and cathartic amount of hope. The Glass Shield never once steps wrong in its pursuit of a certain brand of truth.