This is the latest installment of “Breaking Black,” a weekly column focused on emerging black talent.
Young filmmakers often generate a lot of buzz on the festival circuit, but Phillip Youmans makes them all look old. The New Orleans director made his Tribeca Film Festival premiere “Burning Cane” when he was still in high school, and now he’s a 19-year-old film student on the rise. Inspired by this childhood experiences in the Southern Baptist church — an institution he would later distance himself from — the film is a meditation on the church’s immense influence over its community. The quiet drama is a delicate dance for Youmans, as he works through his own complicated feelings about the differences he has with the God-fearing people who raised him.
At Tribeca, “Burning Cane” has been warmly received — but Youmans has been on the radar of the industry for quite some time, going back to when he first contacted “Beasts of the Southern Wild” director Benh Zeitlin on Instagram. With Zeitlin onboard as an executive producer, the movie is poised to bring Youmans a whole new set of opportunities. However, it also has required him to confront his complicated feelings about the community where he grew up.
“I wanted to make sure that I didn’t demonize them or their beliefs, which came from a maturity I had to grow into before making the film,” Youmans said in a phone interview. It was important that he humanized their experiences and, in doing so, come to terms with his lifelong struggles with religion. Youmans’ influences are evident in “Burning Cane”: Terrence Malick, whose “Days of Heaven” and “Badlands” are two of Youmans’ all-time favorite films, looms large in his work; he also loves Paul Thomas Anderson, Steve McQueen and African cinema pioneer Djibril Diop Mambety.
Set in rural Louisiana, “Burning Cane” stars Karen Kaia Livers and Wendell Pierce in a lyrical, sensitive story that registers as one of the most exciting black films of the year so far, and it establishes Youmans as mature director with a fully-realized voice despite his youth. Youmans is getting used to addressing that part of the equation.
“It’s hard to really separate my age from the discussion because that’s just who I am, and I totally understand that it’s part of the story,” he said. “But I do want people to be able to appreciate the film on its own merits, and not because it was made by a teenager.”
Prior the film’s Tribeca premiere, he was anxious knowing that his deeply religious family — especially his mother — who would be seeing the film for the first time. “I was kind of horrified,” he said. “But what I do hope that everyone who sees it takes from it, is not my issues with the church, but to see the human stories, and the cyclical nature of destructive behavior.”
Youmans describes himself as “probably agnostic,” while admitting that he’s still working through it all. “I just stopped having these discussions with my mother,” he said. “Although I think she and the rest of my immediate family are coming to terms with the fact that I think differently and that it’s OK.”
While Youmans wrote, directed, shot and edited his film during his final years of high school, he also got a major assist from Zeitlin, whose Oscar-nominated “Beasts” unfolds against a similar New Orleans backdrop (though Youmans swaps magical realism for more naturalistic storytelling). By the time Zeitlin got involved, however, Youmans had already made a lot of progress on his own.
The initial version of “Burning Cane” was a short script written during his junior year of high school, in December 2016. He showed it to a man he called “one of the most formative teachers in my entire life,” his media arts instructor at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Isaac Webb. Seeing its potential as a feature — one that could be made inexpensively — Webb convinced Youmans to pursue the idea. He completed an 80-page draft by the end of his junior year, just five months later.
Financing for principal photography came together through an Indiegogo campaign, as well as funds his producer raised, Youmans’ entire savings, and contributions from his family. By July of the same year, he was filming, while still revising the script. His goal was to complete principal photography by the end of that summer, fully aware that with school returning in the fall, filming would be impossible.
From the footage, he cut a trailer, which he sent to Zeitlin on Instagram. That was all it took for impress the “Beasts” director, who has been developing his “Beasts” follow-up “Wendy” through a first-look deal with Fox over the last several years. “Burning Cane” gave Zeitlin a new initiative: Under his New Orleans-based non-profit collective Court 13 Arts, he took on the young Youmans as a disciple, and helped him secure a grant that would allow him to complete post-production on “Burning Cane.”
“Benh sat with me day after day for hours, as we went through all the footage, helping to find the story in the editing room,” Youmans said. “We became friends instantly, and he offered a lot, like facilitating feedback sessions. It sort of became a pilot project for Court 13’s new cinema lab.”
Youmans said he reached out to Zeitlin in part due to their New Orleans connection, as well as his admiration for the director’s work. “The person that Benh was surpassed every expectation I had,” Youmans said. “Here he is, a brilliant filmmaker who is also just a really good dude who has shown me nothing but love.”
The film was completed and ready for festival submissions at around the same time Youmans was finishing up his high school senior year in the early summer of 2018. By then, he was gearing up for another project: film school.
Currently a freshman at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Youmans said he would have followed his mother’s footsteps into a career in medicine, had it not been for his discovery of filmmaking early in high school.
The buzz surrounding “Burning Cane” out of its Tribeca premiere has led the auteur-in-training to contemplate whether he event needs to finish his education in New York. An alumnus of the prestigious NOCCA, a pre-professional arts training center for high school students which provides intensive instruction in various arts, Youmans believes he received comparable film school training while there.
“I love New York and NYU is dope, but NOCCA gave me a lot of the technical foundation of filmmaking,” he said. “And after our first two years of training, they just said, ‘Here’s all the gear you need, now go be artists.’ That’s what I really valued.”
His main priority at the moment is making his next film, which he’s already written, about the 1978 New Orleans chapter of the Black Panthers. It’s another story that’s personal to Youmans, who was introduced to this particular group while in high school.
He spent a lot time with the Black Panthers, conducting numerous interviews over the course of several years. Like his separation from the church, his experiences with the group inspired the direction of his story. “A lot of people didn’t even know New Orleans had a Panther chapter, and I just want to shed some light on that,” he said, “especially since the city was under de facto Jim Crow law as late as 1970, and yet something so unapologetically pro-black thrived, despite the police making their lives hell.”
For the filmmaker, it’s the kind of story of black agency and self-governance that excites him — politically engaged young black men and women only a few years removed from the passage of the Civil Rights Act, working to move their community forward, while simultaneously promoting some of the same stereotypes that they were fighting against. These are contrasts that Youmans finds compelling.
He described his desire to “humanize blackness” and “unapologetically define our narrative,” especially as a black filmmaker, and said both impulses will continue to influence his work. “I want to tell authentic black stories, understanding that you must be willing to accept that we are not infallible,” he said.
For now, he’s trying to enjoy the spotlight, which is likely expand as “Burning Cane” travels. The film has yet to land U.S. distribution, but Youmans said there has been some early interest.
“I think it’s hard for me to take a moment, step back, and think about it a little bit because there’s so much to do, and it feels like there’s really no second to sit down,” he said. “But I’m just excited for people finally to see the film.”