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Humanizing These People: Phillip Youmans on Burning Cane

Films mentioning Southern and Black usually engender assumptions of slavery or racism, as though the Black experience ended in 1865. But those elements do not define Phillip Youmans’ incredible dark feature debut “Burning Cane,” which grapples with issues of toxic masculinity, addiction, faith, and religion in a Southern Black Baptist church community. This expansive yet compact narrative from the 19-year old filmmaker, which won top honors at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, demonstrates a subconscious and intimate analysis of passivity in a religious context that would be esoteric were it not steered by his humanizing vision.   

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A thinly arranged narrative sewn by a wealth of intimate images, “Burning Cane” follows several troubled characters in the deeply religious and secluded Black Southern Baptist church. Helen (Karen Kaia Livers)—a woman with more worries than God can solve—opens by expressing a vexation: Her dog Jojo has the mange. And as she shuttles around her home, smoking a cigarette ornamented by a tail of ash that hangs as heavy as her problems, she describes the unlikely remedies prescribed by neighbors and friends to rid the painful infection that have so far worked to no avail. 

Helen struggles to take Jojo to the vet—they’d just tell her to shoot her dog between the eyes. But in that sickly hound, and in her story, lies a parable of religion and faith and the thin lines separating both that ignites “Burning Cane.” Moreover, Helen’s son Daniel (Dominique McClellan) is a violent spiraling alcoholic, passing his toxic habits to his young son Jeremiah (Braelyn Kelly) while viciously rebuffing his wife Sherry’s (Emyri Crutchfield) plea to find a job. At the same time, Helen’s Pastor, Pastor Tillman (Wendell Pierce, with a righteously bold performance), symmetrically lashes out at her, drinks to excess, and loses faith in his own teachings as well.

Youmans wrote, shot, edited, and directed “Burning Cane.” The film uniquely lights another harvest of the Black story, one not propagated by the retellings of narrative cliches associated within the Black Southern context, but grounded in complicated humanity.    

I’m very struck by how human and fallible these Black characters arenot cliche.

It was integral because you don’t ever want to get close to caricature. You don’t ever want to feel like you’re painting a black and white image of anybody. I think that defines humanzing. With the Pastor [Tillman] there had to be moments, even with him dealing with those demons on his own, where he was rooted in something he believed was right and he believed was just. It was never my intention, and it never will be my intention to create a black and white image of anybody especially something like the church where you can easily get into caricature. 

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Writer/director Phillip Youmans

Do you see yourself in any of these characters?

I’d say more in the themes these characters discuss, and the issues they’re grappling with. But I’d take Daniel as an extreme. In my relationships I’m jealous and insecure—sometimes I sabotage them because of that. And Daniel magnifies that in much harsher contexts, given his interactions with Jeremiah. At least, in terms of Daniel, he was the clearest vessel into what I saw in myself—and Daniel takes it to a level of extreme I would never even approach. 

There’s a generational divide in "Burning Cane." Pastor Tillman talks about losing the young people, while Helen struggles to save Daniel. And Jeremiah is soon becoming a victim of his father’s habits. 

Speaking of generational differences, I think that’s something Tillman references as well, recognizing the younger people at church really don’t believe or align with his views in any way. Young people don’t really follow the same code that comes with being religious. For me, the characters in “Burning Cane” were based on the people I grew up around: my grandparents, my grandmother, the pastor in low-country South Carolina. It felt like I was really drawing from the people in my life, so I think that accounted for the generational divide. 

Sometimes religion causes a passivity, the thought that everything lies within the hands of God and the Devil. What are the dangers of relying too much on supernatural forces that Burning Cane demonstrates?

It’s big, because especially in that last sermon when Tillman names the devil finally. And in other moments, he talks about the evil within us and speaking about it in a more general sense. But at the end, him speaking about the devil and how the devil possesses and drives man to do bad and do evil, I always felt like that was a clear example of scapegoating. I think scapegoating is a big part of that whole conversation, and there’s an emotional refuge people find in church and within religion but also a moral entity they can fall back on and sit with feeling as though their Bible condones their behavior. But they’re not looking at the evil lurking within them. 

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Many of the high points occur during Pastor Tillman’s sermons. What served as the basis for writing these religious tracts?

A couple of pastors. There’s Pastor Porter in South Carolina. A lot of [his] sermons I did remember, but most of that was remembering cadence and remembering how a sermon would start in one place and build to the next. The cadence of the pastor will jump around as he gets more excited and wants to emphasize different points. The messaging was more particular to “Burning Cane,” but in terms of the formation, and the hook they bring into sermons at the beginning, a lot of that was based on going to church.

Obviously there are hints of Malick throughout "Burning Cane," but there’s also Kubrick. How do you take the narrative of Black religious southerners, when on its face religion can seem so overt, and tie it to a filmmaker who relies so much on the subconscious? 

I wanted us to be able to take in and digest the sermons and their messaging, and directly associate that to the actions Helen takes towards the end. A perfect example of that is Pastor Tillman and the final verse he reads her before she takes her actions. But I did want the film to feel like a conversation about the information that Helen was taking in, especially the sermon about children, about how the devil is after you as this physical being. The parallels and conversations with the subconscious was something I wanted us to impose on the viewer, to have their own free association with how Helen and the characters were digesting the teachings of Tillman. 

Some of the most powerful scenes involve gospel. Its usage feels more developed within "Burning Cane" than the copy-and-paste method some filmmakers take with the genre. What draws you to the music? 

I love gospel music. That was one of the few redeeming things about the church experience that I always recognized. I think gospel music is the most beautiful vulnerable music there is. It’s always done with such passion and humility. And the music and genre can exist alone and outside of the context it’s regularly ingested in, whether in a sermon or in a service or amongst God-fearing people. I’ve always had an appreciation of gospel music from a sonic standpoint and from a human standpoint—always asking for hope and forgiveness, speaking of blessings and good fortune, and sometimes the struggle and hardship. It’s a genre defined by vulnerability. 

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Going back to your relationship with the church, what’s your current relationship with the church and religion?

In truth, I’m figuring out a lot of that stuff myself. Right now, I’d say I’m an atheist, agnostic sometimes. I know that I’m not a Christian, or I know I don’t believe in it all in the same way. I have to say, it’s not a black or white discussion because atheistic thought is so bleak sometimes. Oblivion is such a scary idea. Really, everything points to atheism as the only real thing you can rely on, but just in considering there is nothing after life, even though it may very well be true, it does push me to want to think differently sometimes.    

And to those ends, your mother [Cassandra Youmans] was an executive producer on “Burning Cane,” and she’s still very much within the church. How did you pitch her to produce it?  

I have to give major props to my mother. She was incredibly helpful with production and she knew what my intention was, but she also knew and recognized that my intention with the piece was not for it to be defined with my personal objections with the church. The film really, really, really is about humanizing these people, about creating a nuance and objective documentarian view and vision of their lives. It’s not about me imposing my own judgments about the church on them. And I think she recognized that.

What strikes you about filming in Louisiana?

There’s a haunting beauty to Louisiana. There’s also a community element to filming in Louisiana, that I feel like: 1. Helped me out a lot with filming “Burning Cane” but was also present throughout. In Louisiana you can really find people who are dedicated to helping you for the art’s sake and the art’s sake alone, [where] other places don’t allow that financial freedom to make those decisions with that in mind. Louisiana is also a hotbed for art. It’s the deep South and it comes with all the extraneous social things that people associate with the deep South, but I do feel like there’s a lot of great art that comes out of that whole ethos. 

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When was the moment that you knew you were going to be able to finish this film?

When Wendell [Pierce] got involved, the stakes were raised immediately. We had an incredibly established and talented actor, who in ways from an outside perspective validated our production. It was validating for me also, to have an actor of his prestige and talent, to have the work resonate with him like that was such a big thing for me. 

And it made it that this film had to get made. I’m accountable to more people than just myself at this point. There’s no turning back. 

How much did working with Wendell help?

Working with Wendell was amazing. He’s an amazing actor and he makes a lot of great smart decisions. He was also an actor that was fully comfortable and understanding about the mindset I had to work in: directing and shooting it, and doing all those kinds of things. He took the time before we got to set to really prepare and have those conversations about where Tillman is at in his life, and some of the things he’s grappling with—how he’s dealing with the recent passing of his wife, some of the things he’s indulging in: how he’s dipping into his vices—how he’s beginning to question his beliefs in the things he’s preaching himself. I think those kinds of conversations did so much to the point that when we got on set, it felt like a kinetic let’s do it, let’s move it. 

And of course, “Burning Cane” won the top prize at Tribeca in April. When did Ava DuVernay and Array get involved for distribution?

It was in the later part of the summer. I was sitting in the library and got a call from Ava, saying that they were going to make an offer for the film and send it to my team. And we pulled the trigger. It was a no-brainer thing across the board. To be with Ava, to be with Array: a platform that’s so seriously dedicated to promoting the work of Black filmmakers, filmmakers of color, and women, I feel mad fortunate to be in that circle. Even to know Ava and have her as a mentor, I feel lucky as hell.

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