Multiple major names have appeared for their various talks and films during 2019’s Tribeca Film Festival: Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo Del Toro, Christoph Waltz, Martin Scorsese — but one name, a director still attending college at NYU, has stolen the show: Phillip Youmans. His debut film, Burning Cane, won Tribeca’s top prize: Best Narrative Feature —while he became the first and youngest Black director to be so honored.
Youmans hails from New Orleans. There, through much of his childhood, he worshiped in the Southern Baptist church. His experiences, which birthed his current philosophical and religious ruminations, influenced the creation of Burning Cane (amazingly, while he was still in high school). Later, Youmans wrote and filmed a few character studies as shorts. Those sketches served as the basis for his current feature-length debut, for which he received guidance from Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin.
When one meets Youmans, you’re immediately grabbed by his unbridled energy and his wide enthusiastic smile. “I don’t even know how to describe it. It feels good to know that my creative voice and my perspective is good enough. It’s validating because at the end of the day I know there’s stuff that I really dig and that really connects with me, but you never know what’s going to connect with people. It’s probably the best feeling that I’ve gotten from this whole experience,” Youmans said in our interview. “Everyone, like I said, has been so warm to me. So nice. That, it just feels good.”
Set in rural Louisiana, Burning Cane is a lyrical and poetic film told in fragments. The film succeeds through soft swells rather than major narrative turns and examines the culture surrounding the Southern Baptist Church through three main characters: Reverend Tillman (Wendell Pierce, who also won Best Actor in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film from Tribeca), Helen Wayne (Karen Kaia Livers), and Daniel Wayne (Dominique McClellan).
“There are so many cultural aspects of the church that I really do appreciate: gospel music, the sort of familial nature of everything; so many people who have had a profound effect on my life, I’ve met through the church — but as I got older I started to recognize more-and-more of what I disagreed with,” explained Youmans when discussing Burning Cane‘s philosophical roots. “It’s never been a black and white, rigid perception for me. I’ve been able to meld my perception of the people and individuals and the loved ones that I know in the church, and the differences that I have with them ideologically.”
Throughout our interview, the ahead-of-the-curve reality of his career in combination with his age never ceases to amaze. He wrote a short script midway through his junior year of high school called The Glory, which examined the relationship between an estranged mother and her son. His instructor at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Isaac Webb, later encouraged him to expand the script into a feature.
Youmans would later finish said script after multiple revisions, before he and his producer Mose Mayer set-up an Indiegogo. The young director would dedicate his life savings to complete the principal photography for Burning Cane. He would also, by chance, cast Wendell Pierce and change the trajectory of his script.
“What Wendell came in and offered was an opportunity to build the community. Outside of concentrating on Daniel and Helen, it allowed me to speak on the, I guess, [how] the religion governs the community more. It just motivated me to flush out his character and the ripple effect he has in that community,” said Youmans. “Before it was definitely more focused on the mother and the son, but when Wendell came on it just opened my idea to making this almost a mosaic of a community.”
Pierce would also go on to influence how the burgeoning filmmaker approached his directing. “When I first came on set on the first day of shooting with Wendell, I came into his dressing room, and I saw his script page for the first sermon; it was annotated. It was insane,” he explained. “It was crazy seeing this guy that I looked up to take my work so seriously. Humbling,” and “Before working him with him I think I was a little too over the shoulder. He taught me that my job as a director is much more about the conversation than it is about telling someone what to do. Working with him was dope.”
Burning Cane is made all the more special because of its originality. Most films set in the South revolve around some nostalgic white Americana or are predicated around violence against Blacks (slavery or a Civil Rights Era-based narrative), but Youmans’ film examines the Southern Black religious culture from a completely character-centric perspective.
“I didn’t want to impose a by-the-beat plot structure because it never felt right. My original first draft was much more cause-and-effect,” he said. “It was definitely intentioned to more of a portrait of a community as opposed to any catalyst-driven scene sequence. In terms of the mundane moments of it, I really just like the moments where we’re just living with people.”
That unique perspective also follows the director in his aesthetic choices as his film relies on dutch angles and low-lit shots. “I wanted it to feel as much as an authentic insight into this uniquely Black story as much as possible. Which I think sort of incorporates sort of a documentarian style. I didn’t want any non-practical lighting or natural lighting. I wanted to enhance the idea of this not feeling like a set or a movie even,” the director explains, “I know not a lot of the set-ups are aesthetically pleasing, but to me, that’s what was dope about it.”
While Burning Cane has literally made Youmans into one of the hottest new names, he’s not relaxing yet. Currently, he’s developing a film concentrated around the 1978 New Orleans Black Panthers. The filmmaker has been interviewing them over the course of several years, and continues his vision of developing Black-centered stories.
When describing the type of Black narratives he wants to make, the director spoke about Barry Jenkins. “Barry is clearly a Black perspective that’s telling nuanced Black stories from an authentic perspective. That’s it. That’s the goldmine. I want to continue that” he said.
“There’s so much power in duality. There’s so much power in multi-dimensional people. I think in telling things honestly, you can highlight peoples’ heroism by also speaking on their fallible moments. But it’s almost more approachable. You empathize with them more. If anything, their heroic moments are elevated because you know they’re still human at the end of the day,” said Youmans in a moment that serves as the young filmmaker’s ethos. “That’s the stuff that really interests me.”
Images courtesy of Denizen Pictures and Getty Images.