"The Glass Shield" was inspired by a true story, but one suspects that drama overtook its sense of realism. It doesn't matter. It's good drama -- a taut morality tale of police corruption and an engrossing mystery, too.
Michael Boatman ("China Beach") stars as J.J. Johnson, an eager new cop who is the first black deputy assigned to his sheriff's station in Los Angeles. From the beginning, his chief (played with unsettling ambiguity by Richard Anderson) is on his back about every mistake, and J.J. makes plenty of them.
J.J. is told, "People have to fit in," and he takes the advice to heart. When a fellow officer stops a black motorist (played by rapper Ice Cube) for no reason other than his skin color, finds a gun in the car and arrests him, J.J. agrees to back up his colleague and say the suspect made an illegal turn. It takes him a while to realize that his little lie, which he thought would get more "scum" off the streets, is supporting a scheme to frame the motorist for murder.
There's so much corruption in this movie, it gets claustrophobic. Writer and director Charles Burnett ("To Sleep With Anger") has laid it on thick: Racism, sexism, blackmail, murder and brutality are epidemic among the white cops. All of that nastiness is sort of a cliche, but there's enough reality in it to make the film disturbing.
Put Burnett's big statements about corruption aside and you still have an engrossing mystery. Layer upon layer of nefarious schemes are exposed as J.J. and his similarly harassed colleague (Lori Petty) try to dig through them all in the name of justice. The film's sense of danger increases as they get closer to the truth.
Boatman and Petty don't play simple heroes. J.J.'s weaknesses -- his need to belong, his temper -- enrich the character, and Boatman handles the role with quiet power as J.J. goes from greenhorn to whistle-blower. Petty, most recently of "Tank Girl," is demure one moment, seething with barely contained anger the next. They are joined by a splendid cast that includes Michael Ironside, Victoria Dillard and especially Bernie Casey as the lawyer who defends the motorist played by Ice Cube.
Burnett's stylish direction, as well as his decision to refrain from using any curse words in the script, puts the focus on the characters and the ideas. He never loses sight of them, even as he tells an absorbing suspense story.
"The Glass Shield"
Directed by Charles Burnett
Starring Michael Boatman and Lori Petty
Released by Miramax
Rated PG-13 (violence)