At the Tribeca Film Festival in New York earlier this year, Phillip Youmans made history. The 19-year-old director took home the top prize at the festival, the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature, for his debut Burning Cane—the first Black director in Tribeca history to do so.
Youmans also nabbed the award for Best Cinematography in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film, while Wendell Pierce, who plays Reverend Tillman in Burning Cane and also co-produced the film, earned the award for Best Actor in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film.
Burning Cane is a slow-burning, mesmerizing look at the rural South, religion, and the toxicity that can spread through its misinterpretation. The story follows Helen (Karen Kaia Livers), a mother conflicted by the deeds of her son, Daniel (Dominique McClellan) and her religion. Pierce’s alcoholic Reverend Tillman leads the local church.
With his wins at Tribeca, Youmans quickly became one of film’s rising stars, earning the support of Ava DuVernay. Now distributed by DuVernay’s ARRAY, it arrives on Netflix today.
“[Phillip] made a beautiful film with the resources that he had, with funds that he raised himself and from relationships he developed in New Orleans,” DuVernay told ESSENCE. ” He didn’t need to be validated by the studios, the traditional film industry. He instead came to ARRAY to have us distribute his film because he appreciated our love of films and filmmakers.”
The award-winning director added, “What inspires me about him is how he fights for, defends and shares his story every way he can. Burning Cane is important because Phillip told the story exactly how he wanted to, with a depth and maturity way beyond his years. As a filmmaker that is your ultimate achievement.”
There are moments in the young director’s feature film that will likely feel familiar to anyone raised in a religious household in the rural South.
Youmans, who stopped by the ESSENCE office earlier this month, said he pulled many instances from his own experience.
“[Helen] is definitely my favorite character in Burning Cane. She’s also, to me, almost a spitting image of my grandmother,” he explained. “My grandmother is the matriarch of the family. People, whenever there’s a wider family conversation, they don’t go to my grandfather at all, they go to her.”
“Helen’s conflict is something that you could find with a lot of very powerful women in the rural South within that Protestant sphere. Really, it’s with anybody though. You can also be very, very outspoken, like my grandmother, an outspoken decision-maker, but also sort of guide a lot of your convictions based on that moral compass that was imposed on you.”
Other characters in the film reflect these ideas around religion’s restraints as well, creating conversations about language, traditions and their place in a rapidly changing world.
Specifically, Pierce’s Reverend Tillman is a toxic minister, who blames the church’s decline on homosexuality and evolving ideas about gender identity. Youmans, who grew up Southern Baptist, said this character came from his own gripes with the doctrine he learned in his youth.
“That was one of the biggest things for me growing up, hearing that and how frequently pastors would associate being gay with the devil,” he explained. “I think it’s important for us to take a critical look at that. Church really perpetuated so many antiquated values, but I think in general, on a person-to-person level, everyone is much more progressive.”
Further clarifying which parts of the film are autobiographical, Youmans added, “I’ve dealt with addiction, jealousy, the toxic masculine tendencies that Daniel has, albeit to a much less extreme context. In the context of Burning Cane, a lot of it was just me sort of funneling a lot of the things thematically that I’ve dealt with.”
At 19, Youmans has hit the ground running and, as cliché as it sounds, is just getting started. He’s already preparing to tackle a new film about the New Orleans chapter of the Black Panthers, possibly with a unique love story at its center.
“[New Orleans} is just such a hotbed for good art and great stories, and it’s my roots. The Panther story is super personal for me just because I know a lot of those people and I know pretty much all [of] the founding members of that chapter and they’re still alive today,” he boasted. “They were kick-ass, all-in community organizers that were thoroughly about promoting their community.”
Burning Cane is now available to stream on Netflix.