Why is it that most hyperbolic message movies that deal with the tricky subject of racism and the police force, specifically Monster’s Ball and that recent exercise in head-patting liberal self-congratulation Crash, are vaunted for their bravery even though their radical take on race relations boils down to “what goes around comes around”? And why is it that Crash specifically is ensconced in the upper reaches of the IMDb’s list of highly rated films whereas Charles Burnett’s comple—albeit ideologically imbalanced—The Glass Shield, based on a true case of LAPD bias and brutality, hasn’t even managed to amass 500 votes, positive or negative? Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay in Movies and Politics yields a solid theory, namely that distributor Miramax pulled a Through the Olive Trees non-distribution snit on Burnett when he objected to re-shooting his bleak, blackly ironic denouement. But, with all due respect to Harvey and Bob’s flagrantly inappropriate publicity on behalf of the film (the Photoshopped DVD cover places Ice Cube’s scowling, floating face above a canted runaway police car, lights blazing, as though it were a Compton-set remake of Hard to Kill, even though he’s in roughly 10 minutes of the film’s running time as the defendant in a heated murder case), I think there’s something more insidious at work in the skewed tenor of each film’s audience reception: one rapturous, the other condescending at best.
At the beginning of The Glass Shield, Burnett juxtaposes his white-text-on-light-blue-background opening credits (shades of Dragnet) against a series of vivid comic-book panels that establish the heroism-obsessed fantasies of J.J. Johnson, a black rookie cop at a precinct with a ballooning reputation for rough treatment and prejudice, as an idealist who couldn’t fathom the possibility that sometimes the bad guys are the ones wearing badges. Burnett wastes little time establishing both the outsider status of both Johnson and Deputy Deborah Fields (Lori Petty) as their squad’s lone African-American and woman, respectively, and Johnson’s quickly evaporating delusions of valor as he and Fields quickly begin to suspect they are being deliberately placed in danger’s way by their peers (in retaliation for their covert investigation into a rash of mysterious cellblock “suicides”). Both Glass Shield and Crash begin their rising action with scenes involving routine traffic pullovers that escalate into sickening displays of authoritarian power and sexual debasement. Johnson lets an attractive black woman off without a ticket and then is forced to standby while his surly white partner pulls the woman over a second time to ticket her. In Crash, Matt Dillon’s bigoted cop character (played broadly as though Archie the comic character had grown up into Archie Bunker) feels Thandie Newton up while her husband is forced to look on, powerless to do anything but witness.
Burnett uses a socially discomforting scenario that has only vague implications of deeper malice to initiate a truly brave portrayal of a Caucasian-centric, unofficial sort of martial law, a perpetual racial tension that simmers nauseatingly instead of spiking every three minutes as it does in Crash. In Haggis’s film, racial tensions seem to continue if for no other reason than to remind us that every character has two sides (which they do: they’re completely two-dimensional). And so while the audience is still stewing in understandable outrage over Dillon abusing his status as an authority figure, he’s quickly shown caring for his Prostate-afflicted, toilet-ridden father. “Ah,” the audience is allowed to say, “he was just letting off some steam earlier when he put his finger up that innocent black woman’s vagina.” (It’s worth noting that the film’s final image is that of the black social worker, who Dillon berates in one of the film’s early scenes, slinging a torrent of slurs at the Asian driver who smashes into her car, leaving the film’s audience with the “fair and balanced” impression that the Baton of Intolerance has been passed and will be taken to the finish line by a Black Woman. Everyone’s guilty, after all.)
The Glass Shield doesn’t claim its scenario is applicable in every test case. A number of reviewers have lambasted the film for claiming that white police in general are portrayed as vile, swaggering, corrupt thugs who blackmail politicians until they’re strung by the balls (and it’s always balls), despite the fact that it’s explicitly stated that the precinct’s overwhelming machismo is the result of the Lieutenant’s efforts to locate the most mad dog officers—the rabble-rousers—and transfer them to his station. Nor, given Burnett’s glossy, neon blues and reds, does The Glass Shield even make any overtures to the sort of realism that would typically accompany a Hollywood PSA. (The central “miracle” that Crash‘s proponents are quick to celebrate, rightly, is annoyingly invalidated when a box of gun shells is revealed to be a case of blanks.) Political correctness has ruined moviegoers’ digestive tolerance for any theoretical, political cinematic discourse that would dare remind audiences of what they claim to already know but, by rejecting a black director’s unsympathetic portrait of race relations, trip over themselves to demonstrate otherwise. And what we’re left with are flimsy, namby-pamby films like Crash that purport to teach but start the semester handing everyone an A for effort.