Director Phillip Youmans (right), producer Mose Mayer (middle) and producer Ojo Akinlana (left) look at the camera while filming "Burning Cane." 

New Orleans native Phillip Youmans’ “Burning Cane” is a Louisiana-made film through and through — from the long shifts at Morning Call that helped pay for its production, to the network of New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) alumni that put it together, to the Laurel Valley Plantation in Thibodaux where it was shot.

Which is why it feels appropriate that after a whirlwind year — in which the 19-year-old’s debut feature-length film won top accolades at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival and was picked up by director Ava Duvernay’s independent production company ARRAY Now — he’s coming home to see his movie featured as a Centerpiece Film in the New Orleans Film Festival Saturday, Oct. 19, shortly before it debuts on the streaming service Netflix Nov. 6.

“It’s just like, insane, how full circle it feels,” Youmans says.

The NOCCA and Benjamin Franklin High School alumnus made history when he entered Tribeca as the youngest filmmaker selected to compete in the festival and became the first black filmmaker to win the 18-year-old festival’s Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature in the U.S. Narrative Competition. The film also won Best Cinematography and Best Actor (for Wendell Pierce).

“Honestly, I got really emotional afterwards,” Youmans says. “It didn't really register with me until I was at my mom's Airbnb. … In all honesty, I cried then because it was just surreal.”

“Burning Cane” captivated Tribeca jurors with the story of Helen Wayne (Karen Kaia Livers), a devout Baptist woman living in the black rural South, and her struggle to reconcile her religious beliefs and her relationships with her unemployed son, Daniel (Dominique McClellan), and her pastor, the Rev. Joseph Tillman (Pierce), both of whom struggle with alcoholism.

The independent film — which Youmans wrote, filmed and directed while he was a high school student — was a grassroots effort, with many in the New Orleans film community chipping in to make its creation possible.

Due in part to its small-scale production and in part to Youmans’ fresh perspective, “Burning Cane” differs vastly from the studio films that often top the box office. It’s quieter, often forgoing background music to let characters sit in silence. Many of the scenes are shot with a hand-held camera amid low lighting, giving the viewer an intimate look at the characters’ lives, almost as if watching a documentary.

Viewers get a close look as the film tackles heavy topics like addiction, domestic violence and toxic masculinity, while also serving as an exploration of the role of religion in Protestant black communities.

The latter is a subject Youmans has thought a lot about, growing up in the Baptist church and going to church every Sunday. Unanswered questions and doubts he had as a child led him at times to fear he was going to hell, he says. He went through phases where he would pray frequently, hoping that would save him, and other periods where he would eschew religion altogether.

“I felt like I was a prisoner of belief in a way, like it was just exhausting to be afraid of the idea that me not believing in this thing was going to land me in the fiery pits of hell,” Youmans says. “Around seventh grade, I was praying a ton of times a day just because I was afraid, but that was exhausting. Living in fear like that is exhausting.” 

It took him awhile to get to the place he is now — a place, he says, where he is comfortable with his own beliefs and is learning to respectfully navigate the differences between his beliefs and those of his family members. His mother, Cassandra, a practicing Christian, helped produce and finance the film, even though, according to Youmans, she “knew ‘dern’ well what 'Burning Cane' was about.”

“She understood what it meant for me, and she respected what it meant to me and my personal journey,” he says.

That’s why it was important to Youmans that the film provide a nuanced and humanizing portrayal of the religious community, unfettered by his personal beliefs. “That was my utmost mission — that none of it felt like a caricature, a spoof, a parody or an outright damnation of the people and what they believe, how you see them and how they live in this film,” he says.

To ensure the characters came across as multi-dimensional, Youmans gave them space to live and breathe, he says. After a scene where Tillman has gone on a drunken tirade, the film shows him listening to the radio as he drives down a plantation road, smoking a cigarette.

“We see him unwinding,” Youmans says. “We see him taking a beat. I think it's just moments like that that sort of spur us to just stop and consider the person, the person and his actions preceding and following.” 

burning cane

Wendell Pierce, as the Rev. Tillman, preaches to the congregation of Laurel Valley Missionary Baptist Church in a scene from 'Burning Cane.'

The film opens with Helen listing off the homemade remedies she has tried to cure her dog, Jojo, of mange. No matter what she tries, nothing seems to keep him from scratching — but she’s adamant about not taking him to the veterinarian.

“You’d have to kill me before I’d take Jojo to a doctor,” Helen says. “They’d just tell me to take him around to the sugarcane fields and shoot him between the eyes.”

The relationship between Helen and her dog mirrors the relationship between Helen and Daniel and her often fruitless efforts to try to help him, a parallel that exists through the film’s ambiguous ending. Throughout the film, characters rely on friends, family and religion to help them navigate tumultuous times.

Perhaps it was the level of care that was put into “Burning Cane” — exemplified by the constructed parallels and the distinct efforts to humanize its characters — that drew Duvernay, the director behind “A Wrinkle in Time,” “Selma” and “13th,” to the film. She founded ARRAY Now in 2010 with the goal of amplifying independent films by people of color and women. Youmans says he felt compelled to send the company a letter because its mission of telling black stories resonated with him.

He was in the New York University (NYU) library when he received the call. “I said hello, and Ava says, 'Hey, Phillip, it's Ava,’" he recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’"

Once he bolted from the library, the two of them discussed what kind of conversations he wanted the film to provoke and how to bring it to the marketplace. The discussion culminated with ARRAY Now announcing in September that the film will be released on Netflix Nov. 6 and will be shown at various screenings around the country this fall.

Youmans may be young, but he’s been on sets for nearly half his life. He first began acting in his elementary school’s theater department around age 11, then played minor roles in a few films that were shot in the city. But it was being on set for his role as “kid” in the 2015 science-fiction drama “American Hero” and talking to the film’s director and crew that solidified his belief that his interests were behind the camera. That, and the Haribo gummy bears.

“I think there was an experience part of actually being on set, being an actor, having a trailer, having somebody come ask me if I wanted Haribo gummy bears, stuff like that, that kind of made me feel like maybe this part of the production really isn't for me,” Youmans says. “I'm more interested in being the kind of creative voice behind the entire machine.”

He started making shorts — which he now evaluates as “really, really bad” — to experiment with the camera and develop his style. He would shoot music videos with his friends, but often never followed through on producing them.

Then, at 16, he wrote a script for a short called “The Glory,” a story about a son who visits his mother unannounced after a prolonged separation. Realizing something is wrong, she grapples with the guilt she feels as a mother.

Isaac Webb, Youmans’ teacher and department chair of NOCCA’s media arts department, read the script and told him that it had feature-length potential. The story was rooted in character and limited in its locations. Webb’s words were the catalyst Youmans needed to birth “Burning Cane.”

“I felt like if I was going to stand out, that I needed to do this now and then,” Youmans says. “I felt like it was going to be the jump. It was going to be the fuel to really improve, really respect and take film seriously fully as an artform and as a job. I think a big reason that I was unsatisfied with some of my earlier work was that, in truth, I knew deep down that I wasn't giving it my all, giving it my full heart.”

So this time, Youmans launched ahead at full force. Once he’d gotten Webb’s blessing, he spent his entire Mardi Gras break from school holed up in his room drafting the script, expanding upon Tillman’s character and adding context to Helen and Daniel’s relationship. When he wasn’t writing, he was feeling guilty about not writing.

Less than a week later, he returned with a first draft of a feature-length script — roughly 80 pages long.

“I definitely think that was just sort of a building of that mindset of me having this singular, sort of tunnel vision with it,” he says. “The tunnel vision came on in a good way.”

Youmans and fellow producer and Benjamin Franklin High School alum Mose Mayer started pooling together resources in the following months — starting an Indiegogo fundraiser, pitching in their own money from summer jobs and collecting donations from family and friends.

Phillip Youmans

Director Phillip Youmans — an alumnus of Benjamin Franklin High School and the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts — lines up a shot for his debut feature film "Burning Cane." 

Webb connected Youmans with Livers, who had graduated from NOCCA decades earlier, to kick off the casting process. But when Livers read the script, she was intent on playing the role of Helen herself. A mutual NOCCA contact then paired them up with Pierce, a New Orleans actor known for his roles in “Treme,” “Suits” and “The Wire,” whose sermons as the pastor carry some of the film’s heaviest and most central themes.

But it was an Instagram direct message that got Benh Zeitlin, director of the 2012 New Orleans-shot drama, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” on board as the film’s executive producer. Youmans sent him a teaser of the film, and Zeitlin would become instrumental in helping Youmans secure a cash grant from #CreateLouisiana for post-production of the film. The grant helped them gain access to editing space at independent film studio Second Line Stages and final color correction through FotoKem studios. The two of them would sit together for hourslong feedback sessions, with Zeitlin offering tips and suggestions, Youmans says.

With so many people and so much time invested in the project, Youmans knew there was no turning back. He’d have to follow through this time. Still, when it came time to submit the film to festivals, he felt uneasy. 

“Before I actually started submitting the film, I was in a really weird headspace because I couldn't watch it,” Youmans says. “It just couldn't feel ready for me for some reason. My mother was actually the one who told me, 'Phillip, you just have to let it go because it's just going to be an endless thing.'

“I just needed someone to tell me like enough is enough, and my mom was the perfect one to do it because she was so involved in it,” he adds.

While “Burning Cane” may not have been a coming-of-age film by way of its plot, the three-year process from the birth of the short to the film’s upcoming release taught Youmans a lot about filmmaking and what it takes to bring an idea into fruition.

“I think 'Burning Cane' was a maturing situation for me just all around, seeing that patience is key,” Youmans says. “It was a lesson on patience and the fact that these things take time. Post-production took a lot longer than I thought it ever would. But it needed every single bit of that time, every feedback session, all the rigorous notes — everything.”

While the hyper-focus and discipline he had working on “Burning Cane” was something new to Youmans at the time, now he often becomes engrossed in the many projects he has in the works.

During his first semester at NYU last year, he filmed a short documentary on Kenner native and musician Jon Batiste and his band Stay Human — the house band on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” — during their six-night residency at the Village Vanguard, an iconic New York City jazz club. The documentary will be about 18 minutes long and premiere later this year. 

“[Jon’s] music is awe-inspiring,” Youmans says. “He's a singular artist. I feel beyond lucky to even know the guy, much less consider him a friend. ... I miss that dude so much.”

He also recently put together a music video for Inner Wave, an alternative band from Southern California, which he shot in Joshua Tree National Park. The video will mark the first music video Youmans has released.

His next narrative feature will be about the New Orleans chapter of the Black Panthers, a subject he hopes to approach with the same nuance he aimed for with “Burning Cane.”

He’s had the idea since his freshman year of high school, when he met several members at a short documentary screening on the Black Panthers at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center. He told them about the project, and before long he was regularly visiting Malik Rahim, Steve Green and Barbara Guyton at their houses after school and on weekends, interviewing them and hanging out.

“It's very, very interesting, especially when you think about the Panthers as a group of people who are so unapologetically pro-black,” Youmans says. “They're not anti-white, they're pro-black. ... They've been so stigmatized and demonized for so long, and I just want to be a part of humanizing. I just want to be a part of showcasing them as they really were and highlighting the work that they did for the community, while also showcasing them as human beings.” 

Youmans has teamed with a producer and currently is workshopping the script for the feature. That’s all he can say, though. He’s excited about everything that’s to come, so much so that he has to catch himself from revealing information that hasn’t been announced.

But amid a year of impressive accomplishments and ongoing projects, Youmans also had to make a difficult decision: Was he going to pursue the professional opportunities opening up for him or was he going to stay in school for three more years to finish his film degree? He ultimately chose the former — a decision he says he’s still a little insecure about when telling people for the first time.

Ultimately, he knew he had to keep up the momentum.

“I have the opportunity to do what I love doing, and I feel like I just can't turn around,” he says. “I feel like I would regret not going at this thing full force more than I would regret not being in class.”

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