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The prospect of yet another police-procedural flick is hardly electrifying, but The Glass Shield is different—different enough, anyway. If nowhere near as distinctive as such previous Charles Burnett films as To Sleep With Anger, it nonetheless does offer a reasonably fresh perspective on L.A. County’s over-chronicled thin blue line.
Fictionalized from an actual incident, Shield begins with the arrival of a rookie policeman, John “J.J.” Johnson (Michael Boatman), at the Edgemar police station. As the first African-American assigned to the station, J.J. is not immediately welcomed. When he agrees to lie about why a colleague stopped Teddy Woods (Ice Cube), however, J.J. seems to be on his way to acceptance. His status quickly surpasses that of Deborah Fields (Lori Petty), the station’s only woman cop, who’s been there longer.
Woods was found to have a gun that the police think was used in a murder, so the stop seems morally, if not legally, justified. The Edgemar station is notorious in the local black community, however, and local activists insist that Woods has been framed for the murder of a woman whose husband stands to receive an insurance windfall (a suitably shifty Elliott Gould). As J.J. discovers some discrepancies and develops his own doubts, his position at Edgemar becomes precarious; soon his only allies are Deborah and a disgruntled older cop who knows where in the files the station’s many scandals are buried. By this time, though, J.J.’s credibility is damaged, since he’s already perjured himself at Woods’ trial.
Police malfeasance is nothing new in thriller plots, and this is hardly the most thrilling example of the genre. What the film lacks in suspense, however, is compensated in verisimilitude. Though a few corpses pile up and Woods faces the possibility of execution, this is really about the everyday stuff of institutional corruption; the attempt to frame Woods is just an extension of a tradition of fixing traffic tickets, hushing up pederasty cases, and taking bribes. The focus is not on the streets, but on the politics and pressures inside the police station and at home, where J.J. is torn between his new career and his obligations to his family, girlfriend, and the black community. Satisfyingly, the conflict’s resolution ends in ambiguous territory, not on the triumphal heights Hollywood usually provides for noble mavericks who take on the nasty system. (It’s probably this equivocal ending, more than the indictment of white-racist police wrongdoing, that forced the producers to finance the film with French rather than American money.)
Burnett, who wrote and photographed the film in addition to directing it, doesn’t seem as close to the material as he did in his previous work. Still, he gives Shield a distinctive, authoritative look. Instead of his customary folkloric style, he takes his cue from the comic books that (the credits obliquely reveal) inspired J.J. to become a police officer in the first place. The result is a saturated-color noir where the late-night streets are bathed in electric blue and—in the most chromatically striking shot—the station’s holding cells contrast bright yellow interiors with equally bold blue exteriors. Burnett may be more comfortable with earth tones, but he gives this real-world thriller a suitably ominous luster.
Six years after their comrades were massacred in Tiananmen Square, Moving the Mountain cinematically reunites some of the leaders of the student protest that inspired people worldwide and paralyzed (albeit only temporarily) China’s dictatorship. Conceived by producer Trudie Styler (best known as Mrs. Sting), the film makes some dubious choices, but its most powerful moments overwhelm any objections.
Styler selected the film’s star, easygoing dissident Li Lu, and hired director Michael Apted, who’s made a lot of blandly competent Hollywood films and a few striking documentaries (notably those in the “7-Up” series). Li had a remarkably cataclysmic childhood, and he recounts it here with remarkable equanimity: Torn from his parents when they were sent to labor camps, he was passed between foster parents and orphanages and, after he finally found a family that accepted him, saw it (and most of the rest of his hometown) destroyed by a 1976 earthquake that killed an estimated quarter-million people.
Perhaps because Li tells his story so jovially, the filmmakers decided to intercut it with docudrama sequences of his boyhood experiences. Later, they do the same with faked footage of the protest leaders’ escapes from China, which were facilitated by smugglers and a Hong Kong film producer. These embellishments, though sanctioned by the standards of post-Thin Blue Line documentary-making, lead to confusion. Since the film offers no means (other than the viewer’s own discernment) to distinguish the real from the simulated, these scenes throw doubt on the authenticity of every frame that follows. Some of the documentary film—like the sequence of Li getting married in the square during the protest—is remarkable, so it’s not clear that Mountain needs the docudrama inserts.
Li is also an questionable choice for the film’s central character. It’s obvious why the film couldn’t focus on Wang Dan, who wasNo. 1 on the government’s most- wanted list after the crackdown, or Wei Jingsheng, the veteran dissident who inspired the students: Both still live under close surveillance in Beijing, where they could be interviewed only clandestinely for a hour each. But some of the leaders who are now in the West (mostly on U.S. college campuses) certainly deserve more time. Particularly powerful are Wu’er Kaixi, who dared challenge Prime Minister Li Peng in a televised meeting; Chai Ling, one of the instigators of the students’ hunger strikes; and Wang Chaohua, who now blames herself bitterly for failing to persuade her compatriots to take a less confrontational course.
A short 83 minutes, Mountain is more a poignant reminder than a comprehensive study of Tiananmen Square’s aftermath. It lacks the personal engagement of Shu Kei’s Sunless Days (which showed here only at Filmfest DC), yet is far from a definitive summation. Indeed, the film fumbles closure with its final parable about a peasant who seeks to move a mountain. (Both Mountain and Shield are named for lines of dialogue that seem to exist principally to justify their titles.) The failure of Apted’s dramatizations, however, hardly matters next to the real drama of students-vs.-tanks news footage or the emotional range of the student leaders’ contemporary reflections, aspirations, and recriminations.