Glass Shield, The: Charles (To Sleep With Anger) Burnett’s Tale of Racial Politics

The gifted Charles Burnett struggled for five years after To Sleep with Anger to make The Glass Shield, a film more explicitly steeped in racial politics than his previous effort.

The film’s sympathetic hero, J.J. (Michael Boatman), is an idealistic black cop put to the test in a racist precinct. The action begins with J.J., a new academy graduate, assigned to an all-white precinct, and an anonymous voice grunting: “Lucky you, you’re about to make history.” Longing for acceptance, J.J. wants to fit in, but nothing helps. Soon, the word nigger gets scrawled on a bathroom mirror. J.J. continues to smile, even when a cop refuses to recognize him as a fellow officer, and humiliatingly tells him to park in the rear.

In a harrowing scene, a detective pulls a gun on J.J. and shatters the rookie’s trust that justice will prevail. J.J.’s only ally is a Jewish cop, Deborah (Lori Petty), who’s biding her time on the force before going to law school.

The association of a black man and a Jewish woman, is a welcome addition to a genre that has stressed the disparity between genders and between races. The two outcasts join forces against institutional racism and injustice, when an innocent black (Ice Cube) is wrongly framed for murder.

In an attempt to increase the movie’s commercial appeal, Miramax forced Burnett to reshoot the final scene, originally written to have J.J. fight with his girlfriend. In the new ending, J.J. just pushes her away and smashes his fist through her car window.

The Glass Shield didn’t find an audience, and Burnett had to turn to television (the Disney Channel) for his next project, Nightjohn (1998), the story of a young, illiterate slave and her thrilling experience of acquiring basic human skills.