The foundation of police work is protecting those who have a lot from those who don't have so much. This was how the first systematic investigator of capitalism, Adam Smith, understood policing. So, let's begin this week's installment of The Stranger's Film Club, which is focused on Charles Burnett's 1994 film The Glass Shield, by reading the relevant but underappreciated passage from Smith's masterpiece The Wealth of Nations:

For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many. The affluence of the rich excites the indignation of the poor, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions. It is only under the shelter of the civil magistrate that the owner of that valuable property, which is acquired by the labour of many years, or perhaps of many successive generations, can sleep a single night in security. He is at all times surrounded by unknown enemies, whom, though he never provoked, he can never appease, and from whose injustice he can be protected only by the powerful arm of the civil magistrate continually held up to chastise it. The acquisition of valuable and extensive property, therefore, necessarily requires the establishment of civil government. Where there is no property, or at least none that exceeds the value of two or three days’ labour, civil government is not so necessary.

When those on the right praise Adam Smith, they have in mind the very short passage about the "invisible hand" of the market, which basically comes down to Gordon Gekko's famous speech about how "greed is good." In this picture of society, self-interest produces the social benefits. Smith did say that, but he also said lots of things that conservatives would prefer to ignore. One is about police work. It's not about good and evil but the haves and the have nots. And what was true in Smith's times is still true in ours.

But most movies and TV shows narrate not the policing of poverty but that of solving crimes that involve the most extreme human passions, or genius-like effort to decode the mind of a serial killer, or piecing together the puzzle of a seemingly unsolvable murder. This last is the role of the great Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramírez in HBO's disappointing The Undoing. The same is true for the great black American actor Mahershala Ali in the third season of HBO's also disappointing True Detective. These investigators, and so many other fictional police officials (for example, Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect), are, the general imagination, way above the kind of policing that happens on the regular. What preoccupies them is what preoccupied their equally fictional Victorian ancestors (Sergeant Cuff and Inspector Bucket), which is decoding the mind of a master criminal or finding the way out of the maze of some mystery.

With this understanding, we can appreciate why Charles Burnett's fourth and most costly feature, The Glass Shield, flopped. It concerns regular police work, which is almost all about keeping the poor in their place.

Michael Boatman plays a black cop in Glass Shield.
Michael Boatman plays a black cop in Glass Shield. Glass Shield

Charles Burnett is, in my opinion, the greatest black American director in the history of cinema. His second feature, To Sleep With Anger, is up there with the defining productions of his generation: Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Anthony Braxton. His first film, Killer of Sheep, received a great deal of attention when it was restored in 2007 with the financial help from Steven Soderbergh. His third film is forgettable. But Burnett's fourth film, The Glass Shield, which received considerable capital and promotion from the Hollywood studio Miramax, went down in flames not because of a lack of funds or star power (Ice Cube, Elliott Gould, Lori Petty, M. Emmet Walsh) or artistic imagination. It didn't work because its police officer, who is black (Michael Boatman), actually does the kind of work most police officers do: which is protecting those who have things from those who do not. If Burnett made a black cop like SE7EN's Morgan Freeman (tracking down a serial killer), or even Training Day's Denzel Washington (basically a black Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant), the mainstream movie-going public would know him as well as they do Spike Lee or F. Gary Gray.

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The racial issue in policing, however, is a consequence of the fact that a large number of America's poor are black. If we apply Adam Smith's reading on policing on black poverty, which has its roots in American slavery, we find the answer to why so many blacks are in some part of the US's massive correctional system.

In The Glass Shield, the main character, a rookie black cop named Deputy J.J. Johnson (Boatman) who comes from a middle-class family and wants to do the kind of police work he saw in the movies, comic books, and TV shows of his boyhood. But as soon as he is on the beat, he learns from the white officers in his department that his job is to keep those who are poor or look poor (due to the color of their skin) in check. This is the black cop's dilemma, which is explored in Steve McQueen's Red, White and Blue, and almost entirely ignored in Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman, which attempts to place racist policing on a metaphysical rather than economic plane.

The only crime Shield's Johnson (Boatman) ends up trying to solve is the nature of policing as described by Adam Smith, the man who first articulated the system that keeps poor people poor and rich people rich, capitalism.