(director/writer: Charles Burnett; cinematographer: Elliot Davis; editor: Curtiss Clayton; music: Stephen Taylor; cast: Lori Petty (Deborah Fields), Michael Boatman (J.J. Johnson), Michael Ironside (Detective Chuck Baker), Elliott Gould (Mr. Greenspan), Ice Cube (Teddy Woods), Don Harvey (Jack Bono), Richard Anderson (Commander Massey), Bernie Casey (James Locket), Sy Richardson (Mr. Taylor), M. Emmet Walsh (Detective Jesse Hall), Victoria Dillard (Barbara Simms), Wanda De Jesus (Carmen Munoz), Linden Chiles (Sgt. Foster), Erich Anderson (DA Kern), Natalija Nogulich (Judge Helen Lewis), Tommy Hicks (Reverend Banks); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Carolyn Schroeder/Tom Byrnes; Miramax Films; 1994)

An angry anti-cop message flick directed and written to be subversive by angry LA based indie filmmaker Charles Burnett.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An angry anti-cop message flick directed and written to be subversive by angry LA based indie filmmaker Charles Burnett (“Killer of Sheep”/”To Sleep With Anger”). It’s about corruption and racism in the LAPD, and is inspired by a real incident.

Bright-eyed J.J. Johnson (Michael Boatman), who always dreamed of being a cop and always thought of them as heroes when growing up and reading comic books on their good deeds, graduates from the academy and the city council gets him appointed as the first black deputy in the sheriff’s department in LA’s Edgewar Station. The chief Massey (Richard Anderson) immediately dislikes Johnson and harasses him. The deputy is confronted by a racist force and has trouble fitting in. Johnson bonds with Jewish officer Fields (Lori Petty), as the other outsider in a close-knit force.

When hipster Teddy Woods (Ice Cube) is stopped at a gas station by Officer Bono (Don Harvey) because he’s a black man riding in a flashy car owned by his girlfriend and then is found with a pistol in the car, he’s framed for the murder of Mrs. Greenspan. She was recently killed in her car while sitting with her husband when stopped at a light. Johnson was the backup officer during the arrest and is talked into lying by Bono that Teddy was stopped for a traffic violation. The deputies put together a story that the gun was the murder weapon by changing its serial number, getting shady businessman Mr. Greenspan (Elliott Gould) to falsely identify Teddy as the killer and the charges stick as they are helped by Teddy’s rotten attitude and not providing an alibi. Johnson soon uncovers he’s in a dirty department, where Detective Chuck Baker (Michael Ironside), a dirty cop known for violating prisoner’s rights, leads an unauthorized Rough Rider club among the deputies and they commit all kinds of illegal atrocities. They even hang a black prisoner in jail and make it look like suicide, and they break the law by letting a powerful council man’s son go on hit-and-run charges after black mailing him. Teddy’s earnest lawyer Locket (Bernie Casey) takes on with full conviction the corrupt system to get his client off, while the conflicted Johnson is trapped into going along with the bad cops and their code of silence or risk his job or possibly his life by turning against his department, until he can’t live with himself anymore and makes the bold choice to do the right thing despite the consequences.

It’s a slickly done routine Lumet-like cop story, with no surprises, lots of preaching, mostly one-note characters and a story that’s been told too many times before to be considered fresh. Nevertheless there’s a certain power and sense of morality it has that makes it watchable. The studio forced Burnett to shoot a more hopeful ending, which he complied with and agreed the situation was so despairing that some glimmer of hope for a better future would be a positive.

Though based on an actual case, it appears to be more Hollywood fictional than real.