For 19-year-old director Phillip Youmans, home is home. When his Louisiana-set debut feature made him the youngest and first black filmmaker to win a prize at Tribeca, it was easy to wonder how any teenager could have made this startlingly original work all by himself. But although he wrote, produced, directed and edited Burning Cane, Youmans has his friends, family and community in his hometown of New Orleans to thank for making it happen. For this special guest-edit, shot over Thanksgiving, he travelled back to the city to shoot the individuals who matter most to him. “I was thinking about all the people who had an effect on me,” says Youmans of the cast. “I didn’t want to think about it in a straightforward way, because it’s not always a picture-perfect interaction that you have with somebody for them to have an effect on you – and for you to be honest about the effect they’ve had on you.”
Burning Cane starts out painfully slow. We observe a middle-aged black woman as she moves around her house and back yard, monologuing about her sick dog. She limps and smokes and coughs. She details the remedies she has attempted in exacting detail – hydrogen peroxide, apple cider vinegar, honey – but nothing will stop her dog from scratching himself to death. Interspersed with shots of the sugar cane fields that surround her house, this is a five-minute opening sequence that respects dailiness, and domestic routine as survival. It’s a cinematic yawn, the kind that doesn’t feel the need to rush; something rare as it is, but, as the product of a then 17-year-old’s imagination, something unbelievable.
“When I got older, I started to look at telling stories in a way that expanded on my own personal conversations,” says Youmans. “And also wanting to incorporate how it played in my community at large, especially with black people.” Still only 19, with seven directorial credits behind him, the Louisiana teenager could also be accused of a certain amount of rushing. His speech throughout our conversation is breathlessly excited, permanently on to the next thing, running ahead of me and everybody else.
“Burning Cane is a (reflection) of where I was then, the questions I was asking. Before, I was a little ruder about my differences with the church... There’s a lot of love (in the community), and also a lot of toxicity” – Phillip Youmans
We speak months after Youmans – who made Burning Cane when he was still in high school – achieved a double-first, as the first and youngest black director to win a prize at Tribeca. Tackling the cycle of hypocrisy and shame at the heart of the Southern Baptist community he grew up in, his film follows a struggling triumvirate in an impoverished Louisiana town: Helen, a strong-minded widow played by Karen Kaia Livers; her pastor, Reverend Tillman (The Wire’s Wendell Pierce); and her unemployed son, Daniel (Dominique McClellan). Both of the men in Helen’s life are alcoholics: for the reverend, a violent act from his past fissures beneath his sermonising; for Daniel, the threat of his enacting violence upon his wife and young son is always on the horizon. Combined with Youmans’ sensitivity to the transcendence to be found in the natural world – his lens rests on Daniel’s young son among orange trees with a kind of childlike awe – it’s a beautiful and bleak vision: a camera trailing bankrupt souls, slightly out of step with their time.
For Youmans, the story is personal: not a retelling of his own childhood by any means, but the architecture by which he could work out his own feelings about his Southern Baptist upbringing. “At the time, I had separated from religion,” he explains. “Burning Cane is such a (reflection) of where I was then, in terms of the questions I was asking. Before, I was a little ruder about my differences with the church, but my intention with the film was just to make something that spoke about my perspective, how I felt about certain things. There’s a lot of love (in the community), and also a lot of toxicity.” He is careful to acknowledge a degree of difference, though, especially with the relationship between Daniel and his son Jeremiah, mired in abuse with the occasional joyous moment. “It was an exploration of the kind of people I grew up around, (but) in a much harsher context, considering the types of things that are at stake in the film.”
But, says the director, “the film came together more than anything because of the community I had around me.” Behind its narrative of broken-down family ties, the movie’s backbone was the community of New Orleans-based individuals who helped make it happen. From his mum and sister to his school friends, Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeflin (who executive-produced Burning Cane after Youmans reached out on Instagram) and actors like Livers and Pierce, it took a literal village. “I appreciate them to death!” says Youmans. “I followed my creative instincts through and through because I didn’t have any investors... You don’t know if this film is going to be seen anyway, so why not? Why not go completely gung-ho?”
Burning Cane was clearly a cathartic process for Youmans; now he’s out on the other side, you get the sense he’s closer than ever to his family and community, something that has given his subsequent projects a sense of hard-won optimism. In the short “Nairobi”, made with Solange’s Saint Heron platform, a west African mother who has recently immigrated to New York bonds with her daughter over the latter’s sewing-machine creations; in recent film installation “Won’t You Celebrate With Me”, a group of black women roam in nature in an Afrofuturist fantasy. But Youmans’ next full-length project will go to the heart of the city in which he was raised: a narrative feature inspired by the New Orleans chapter of the Black Panther Party, whom he has got to know in recent years. As a nod to what’s to come, he shot one of the Panther elders, Malik Rahim, at his house for this story. Around the time that he was making Burning Cane, Youmans would visit Rahim there after school – sometimes with his friends, sometimes alone. “Though (the Panthers) were so much older than us it never felt that way,” he reflects. “They are kind of time-stamped in their youth forever in a dope way. And they have the same sort of idealistic conversations that young people have. They’re revolutionary.
“One thing I will say about Malik and (the other Panthers): they are my friends and, being friends, we’ve had differences. But it was also a growing thing for me to recognise that they do come from a different generation; they come from a much harsher time than I do – growing up in Jim Crow New Orleans, I could never even imagine. But it also taught me that none of that defines them as people or separates them from the work they did for their community.”
According to Youmans, learning about the Panthers’ work in the now-demolished Desire housing projects during the early 1970s taught him about the role of vulnerability and openness in activism. “There were mornings where they were feeding over 200 kids, giving them breakfast,” he says. “The Panthers represented the proposition of black self-governance, of going into a community that the police had (neglected) and brutalised and redeveloping it. There was so much about these people that was selfless, and the moments where they showed their vulnerability really define this next film.” This encounter and friendship – between Youmans’ teenage friends, and figures such as Rahim – speak to the intergenerational spirit of community that the young director’s work is forged in. They’re what helped turn a teenager’s inquisitiveness into a philosophy; sounds to burning images. For Youmans, the political always surfaces through the personal. And it will always come back to New Orleans. “I do want to move around,” he says, “but home is home. It’s a dope place to be.”
Talent Falola ‘Ojo’ Akinlana, Mark Eyer, Yancy Young Jr, Rashaud Brown, Tera Eyer, Rahsaan Adoni Ison, Mose Mayer, Cassandra Youmans, Sydney Youmans, Daylight Rodriguez, Sly Watts, Wanky B, Joshua Williams, Yancy Young Jr, Cooper Gros, Chad ‘40 Mid’ Roby, Albert Charles, Jeremiah ‘Ooozie’ James, Antonio ‘Champ’ Travels, Theodore ‘Choppy’ Thompson, Derek ‘B.W.Street’ Brumfield, photography assistants Rahsaan Adoni Ison, Zacharia Pierre, Mose Mayer, styling assistant Archie Grant