BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: the thin blue line.

ONE OF the United States’ most important independent directors, Charles Burnett and his oeuvre is starting to get a bit of attention following last year’s re-release of his landmark 1977 film Killer of Sheep. The Glass Shield for example was buried upon release, and today, almost feels like it’s laying the groundwork for shows like The Wire – though admittedly, Burnett’s take is slightly more uneven and simplistic (but then The Wire has five seasons to work through its stories…). But Burnett’s tale of police corruption and idealism does contain some special kind of fury, right the way up to its pointed ending.

Reportedly based on a true story of LA police corruption, JJ Johnson, a rookie cop finds himself hand-picked to join a maverick police unit. Immediately he’s made an outsider, as the only token black man there, and finds himself losing his bright-eyed idealism. He finds another marginalised token there too – Deputy Fields (Lori Petty) – and their ostracising is complete when the two covertly investigate police corruption. Johnson also has to grapple with his own conscience – display loyalty to his group, or go behind them to get a framed man (Ice Cube) off.

Burnett goes at great lengths to set up the institutional racism and sexism that exists within the police, legal fraternity and the political institutions. At times he’s a bit simplistic (it’s specifically white men who are the problem – and his white male characters aren’t as complexly drawn as his other characters) – you can tell some of the policemen are immediately shady, because only bigots seem to have moustaches. The story isn’t particularly new either. However, Burnett sets up his tension slowly, and Johnson’s character trajectory is believable and bitter. The acting is convincing too – Michael Boatman (as Johnson) and Petty in particular are top notch. There’s a palpable sense of frustration burning throughout the film. And while Burnett’s film is certainly not a canonical one (unlike next week’s Killer of Sheep), it’s a thrilling ride nonetheless.