History Maker: 19-Year Old Director Phillip Youmans Talks the Black Church, 'Burning Cane' and Trusting His Vision [Tribeca Interview]

April 30th 2019

In 19-year-old Phillip Youmans’ feature film debut, Burning Cane, the filmmaker showcases how individual choices can ricochet off of other people, derailing everyone's lives.

Set in rural Louisiana in the late-‘90s, Burning Cane opens amid the burning season, when the sugar cane is set ablaze so that it’s easier to harvest. Burning Cane is a poetic narrative that follows Helen (Karen Kaia Livers), a concerned mother who is desperately trying to navigate her relationship with her unemployed, alcoholic adult son, Daniel (Dominique McClellan), and her recently widowed pastor, Revered Tillman (Wendell Pierce). Like Daniel, Rev. Tillman is also seeking to find solace in the bottle. Though Helen deeply empathizes with both men, when their actions begin to suffocate her and her grandson, she decides she has to take drastic action.

Burning Cane had its debut during the Tribeca Film Festival, making Youmans the youngest direct to ever have a feature film in the festival. At Tribeca, Shadow And Act sat down to chat with Youmans about writing Burning Cane, bringing it to life and what it means to be a fearless storyteller.

"I think the inception story came for me when I was 16," Youmans said. "I knew I wanted to work within those familiar dynamics between a mother and a son. I also wanted to explore the dynamics of the church and the community, especially with Wendell as that centerfold figure as the pastor of this town. Initially, the film was definitely more based within the mother and son's dynamic, but once Wendell came in, it brought in the opportunity to have a larger conversation about all of these pieces within the community. The real inspiration for it came from my upbringing, stories that my mother told me, and a lot of the experiences that I had in my mother's hometown of Hampton, South Carolina."

The Black church is a pillar in the Black community. However, as we press forward into the 21st-century membership has decreased as young people have pushed back against some of the sexist and homophobic rhetoric that some churches cling to. "I knew that the discussion was important enough for me to have even if only on a personal level," the New York University student stated. "I know that it's touchy, especially given how big the church has been for our community in terms of literally community building. I always want to make sure it's known that I do have a very profound appreciation for the community building of the church, gospel music, for all of the familiar relationships you build within the church. I was still able to realize that I have a firm ideological difference with what's often being preached, and that was something that I came to terms with very early on."

Wendell Pierce in "Burning Cane" | Photo Credit: Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival Wendell Pierce in "Burning Cane" | Photo Credit: Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Youmans chose to set his poetic narrative in rural Louisiana (his home state), and he leaned on Beasts of the Southern Wild director, Benh Zeitlin for mentorship and guidance. "Beasts of the Southern Wild was not an inspiration for Burning Cane at all," he revealed. "But I think that me and Benh have a lot of similarities in our work and what speaks to us. I think that's why we harmonize so well in post-production. I met Benh immediately after I finished shooting the film. From that point on he was a huge part of my feedback sessions. He personally would sit with me for hours and days giving me tons of feedback on the edit. It really was a full-scale creative mentorship that I really valued."

Though Burning Cane was in the hands of acclaimed actors Pierce and Livers, Youmans said he was not intimidated. The entire experience became a collaborative effort. "I’ve been very fortunate that I was working with very intelligent actors, very talented actors,” the New Orleans native explained. "I was learning more about the process of directing while I was doing it. I just had this grandiose version in my head of what it would be like to direct Wendell Pierce. But, he approached the material with so much respect. He didn't try to enforce any sort of hierarchy, and neither did Kaia or anybody even though they were so many years my senior. It was almost like the camera, the script, it was all a leveling ground. It was the great equalizer. We were all just here trying to make something that we felt very passionate about. I think that's what spirit was stirred amongst everybody."

Youmans is already defining himself as an auteur. In addition to the acclaim he's garnering for Burning Cane, he's made a short film, Nairobi, with Solange Knowles’ creative agency Saint Heron and he's premiering a documentary film on Jon Batiste and the Stay Human band later this year. "I want to tell honest, Black stories," he reflected. "I think my artistic identity is pretty firmly established in that. I want to continue to make narrative features. I'm looking for the new honesty in things. I'm looking for the whole picture because I feel like the truth always comes out anyway. I think now is probably the best time for Burning Cane to come out. It does seem like there is a very real resurgence of Black voices, and we're being heard from different perspectives with stories about us that have never been told before. I think I'm fortunate that I was able to make this now.”

Jumping into the fire of the film world with so much at stake— Youmans doesn’t feel any tribulation about expectations or how his work will be received. "I’m excited," he admitted. "I feel fortunate to be in Tribeca. It's crazy, thinking about that, I'm living it. I'm happy that Burning Cane is going to be seen. I'm happy that it resonated with people, and that it's from my voice. I didn't have to compromise anything. I'd say that's the most validating aspect of it. This is a film that I wanted to make. People who believed in me were willing to work well below industry rates to help me do it, and my creative voice, my creative instincts were good enough. That's the best part. That feels good. That in itself, outside of any sort of noise or anything, that for me has been very, very comforting."

Burning Cane premiered April 25, 2019, at the Tribeca Film Festival.

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Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide

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Photo: Tribeca Film Festival

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