The Glass Shield is an under-appreciated film from Charles Burnett, whose films Killer of Sheep and To Sleep With Anger rightfully get more hype. Still, The Glass Shield is an insightful, riveting work. Burnett wouldn’t make another theatrical narrative feature until 1999. Was it that The Glass Shield wasn’t much of a commercial success? Or maybe its narrative rubbed Hollywood the wrong way?
To call the film prescient would be an insult and a misread: a 2020 watch of Burnett’s film just proves that the racism, sexism, and nepotism that The Glass Shield addresses is only now a mainstream topic.
Ice Cube is great in this film. Sandwiched between classics like Boyz n the Hood, Higher Learning, and Friday (I haven’t seen Trespass), this role is something like an evolution. His Teddy Woods isn’t on-screen all that much, but Ice Cube’s got a frustration and tentative confidence that plays so well here. There’s a moment during the trial where he gives a small smile to his family sitting nearby and it’s at once self-assured and totally, totally lost – a great moment.
Michael Boatman is really well cast as J.J., a rookie cop. He’s just got such a young, innocent face. Since so much of the cast is made up of mustachioed, burly white men (more on that below), it’s not just that Boatman is black (well, that’s a whole lot of it), but also that he just looks like a rookie.
Those other cops are so well done. Burnett often shoots them in medium wides, fitting a lot of them in the frame. They look so similar! And that’s the point.
If there’s a problem with The Glass Shield (aside from the nighttime photography looking so blue) it’s that it’s a bit overstuffed. Burnett and screenwriters John Eddie Johnson and Ned Welsh (though you have to wonder how much of the politics came in when Burnett got the script) tackle a hell of a lot in here and there are times – especially when we get to the far reach of corruption involving a politician’s son’s hit and run – where the momentum of the film slows a bit too much.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is when J.J. and Deputy Fields (Lori Petty) are charged with covering the back door of a supposed drug bust.
A group of cops approaches in a WS. The lead officer passes in profile, and then Fields after him. We land in that profile MS on the lead guy, with J.J. in the foreground just as dirt, and Fields in the middle ground, also over her shoulder:
Cut around the corner. Fields and J.J. bust in through the fence. We get their POV. Yes, too-blue, but super moody:
A little push in for a slightly tighter 2-shot. Then Burnett cuts to the front as the full rest of the force bashes in the front door. I love the third shot back to J.J. and Fields below. It’s so lonely; they’re so small:
They get a call over the walkie that all’s clear. As though it reads their mind, the camera pushes towards the house first. Then Fields and J.J. enter frame on their way:
To an MCU 2-shot on the partners. Another small push. And then, my second-favorite part of this scene, they back away as the camera pulls back with them, leaving an empty frame on the back door:
It’s a tense scene and really well shot. I like how we go from full team to lone partners to partial team to lone partners. Burnett is smart to really accentuate those ideas of a unit and isolation.
The back door becomes such a character. It’s a good reminder that a well-placed and timed hold on something can imbue it with meaning. Here, we expect that door to fly open at any moment.
The push to the door before the characters enter frame, and then hold on it after they exit (as the camera pulls away) is expert. There’s a wariness to those moments – like Fields and J.J. don’t want to be in the vicinity (read: frame, and actual space) of that door because they know the danger behind it.
Look at the composition of all the other cops at the front door. Center-framed, a long line of Z-axis elements. Compared with the shot after it, it’s almost like we just pulled all of the cops but two from the image. The wall frame left and the useless dirt ground frame right now replace the security of having teammates at your back. There’s also some good montage here. I’m reminded all the way back to Battleship Potemkin where a classic Eisenstein cut makes it look like the sailors are fighting one-another, when in fact, it’s just intentionally broken screen direction. Here, the two shots in question, and when in isolation, make it look as though J.J. and Fields are aiming their guns at the officers, who will soon charge through the front door and directly at them.
Because Fantasia was online this year I was able to catch five films. Undoubtedly the best I saw were Fried Barry and Anything For Jackson.
Fried Barry (Kruger, 2020) – the first half of this film, before the intermission(!), is great. It’s plotless, experimenting with so many different styles, and really manic. Gary Green is Barry. That face is gaunt, skeletal, and memorable. His deep dive into drugs and a cast of characters (all of the side characters in this film are great, a real rarity) is nuts and I loved it.
When the film settles and finds a plot it doesn’t have the same charm or zing. Still, the ending totally lands, and Green is endlessly watchable. The film just has such nerve.
Anything For Jackson (Dyck, 2020) – The first 15 minutes or so of Justin G. Dyck’s (whose filmography, oddly, consists mostly of Christmas movies) film threw me a bit. The tone felt off and I didn’t know if I believed the lead performances. That feeling went away quickly thereafter. Anything For Jackson is sometimes really funny, and also nicely tense. It’s got some of the elements that I loved in A Dark Song, and an amazing character that I will only call “Flossing Lady.” The script is good and goes to some unexpected places. There’s a great beat with a snowblower, and another with a frustrated metalhead satanist and his mother.
Hunted (Paronnaud, 2020) – Hunted is a good film, made nearly great thanks to Arieh Worthalter’s charismatic, uncomfortable turn as…well, I won’t say. It’s better to go into this film not knowing where it’ll lead. There’s a rawness to the first act and past the midpoint that is absolutely perfect. The film loses some steam at the beginning of the third act when we somewhat awkwardly tie a strange prologue back into the narrative, but then it comes roaring back at the end. The tie-in of real estate and corporate world works so well.
La Dosis (Kraut, 2020) – the best part of Martín Kraut’s film is undoubtedly the hallucinatory mood and pacing. It’s sometimes like the characters are moving through an invisible mud, especially Marcos (Carlos Portaluppi) and that’s a great thing. The doubling aspect, which even the poster more than hints at, is fun, and Ignacio Rogers plays it really well as Gabriel, a nurse who may or may not be a danger and Marcos’ alter-ego of sorts.
Sleep (Venus, 2020) – Sleep is at its best when I don’t get what’s going on. There are strange nightmares, odd connections, and a lodge that should be in Hour of the Wolf. At times it feels like a stretched short, and the characters are surprisingly hard to spend a lot of time with. Some of the set pieces are awesome – metal and flashing lights – but I don’t get the reasons behind them. How does one dig a grave so fast?