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In 1995, Burnett's racial cop drama The Glass Shield was ill-served by Miramax, who marketed it as another Menace II Society or Boyz n the Hood starring Ice Cube, even though the latter plays only a supporting role. Too bad, because though often overwrought and caricatural, the film showed Burnett's skill with more mainstream fare. The white beat cops are all beefcake racists with Bruce Dern mustaches, the white detectives (character-acting royalty M. Emmett Walsh and Michael Ironside) crypto-fascists, but Burnett isn't oblivious to the cartoonish qualities. A kind of Very Special Comic Book Movie, it even opens with comic stills.
Of the three made-for-cable movies here, by far the best is 1996's Nightjohn —Selma Lord Selma, about the Bloody Sunday Alabama freedom march, and Finding Buck McHenry, a modern little league bauble that becomes a Negro League baseball history lesson, are adolescent classroom stuff. Nightjohn, too, has the patient rhythms and correct politics of teaching material (it's adapted from a Gary Paulsen book), but the performances make it art. Carl Lumbly plays the title slave who's returned to the plantations from Northern freedom solely to teach slaves to read, a tool he equates wholeheartedly with power.
America Becoming, a 1991 PBS doc about shifting demographics that Burnett made with frequent collaborator Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, is an interesting time capsule with some wide-shot man-on-the-street interviews that recall Killer of Sheep in their casualness. But according to Burnett, the doc's sponsors (The Ford Foundation) spoiled what could have been a realistic portrait, darkly prophetic of impending race riots, had they not wanted to "paint a rosy picture of immigration" that shows "the melting pot working." The episode Burnett directed for The Blues in 2003, Warming by the Devil's Fire, is better, its recipe of expertly curated blues selections and fictional narrative not all that different from that in Killer of Sheep.
Burnett put so much of himself into his debut feature, that it's unsurprising that there are traces of it in all his other work, and that they all hearken back to it in some way. At the same time, he never comes close to remaking or self-plagiarizing. When he realized that he had his own subject (poor black families in Los Angeles) and his own special way to portray it, a smaller-thinking filmmaker might've tried to keep making Killer of Sheep until it was "commercial". But Burnett's interests range across too many areas, and his outsized integrity and imagination have paradoxically limited him to variety.