“I didn’t dream about being a director. I didn’t know I wanted to do something with film until the summer between my sophomore and junior years at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.” – Spike Lee. Spike Lee may have spent his early years in college discovering his talent but there was a young director who has spent his first years in college winning awards for produced work. Juggling press junkets, red carpets, interviews, all while finishing his college exams. That was the case for the 19-year old director, Phillip Youmans, who became the youngest and first African American to win the Founders Award (Best Narrative Award) category for his creative and introspective film Burning Cane.
About the Film: Burning Cane is Phillip Youmans’ first film that stars the talented Wendell Pierce, Karen Kaia Livers, Dominique McClellan, and Braelyn Kelly. It explores relationships of a Southern Protestant church, toxic masculinity, gender/family roles within the small African American community, and toxic cultures that can plague families.
The Louisiana native discussed with Taji Mag the film’s origin. Youmans had put time and energy into a screenplay titled, Brothers and Sisters, that he is looking to produce next. His focus changed after a teacher suggested he put more energy into the Burning Cane realizing its potential upon reading the draft.
Inspiration for Burning Cane
Mostly inspired by his upbringing and questions about the southern Black church culture/spirituality, Youmans explained that the film was a form of therapy for him. Youmans went more in-depth about the film stating, “The biggest inspiration for Burning Cane was my upbringing and childhood in the Southern Baptist church, a lot of the hypocrisy and fallacies that I recognized early on in my childhood in the church. These were questions I had about the church that I was able to work through while making the film.”
Lessons of Life In Film
There are many topics that Youmans addresses in the film – one being toxic masculinity. Particularly when the film focuses on the character Daniel Wayne, played by Dominique McClellan. When asked about toxic masculinity, Youmans said, “In terms of toxic masculinity, there is a lot of danger in trying to uphold traditional gender roles. I think a lot of that is indirectly upheld through the Southern Baptist church. Especially in the fundamentalist Protestant communities. I did want to touch on it and it’s a pretty glaring issue. It’s a part of the fabric of American culture, world culture.”The struggle of religious practice was also a player in the film, having the various characters learn their moral identity. Helen Wayne, the main character played by Karen Kaia Livers, struggles with it the most as she faces decisions that push her to make impactful choices.
When it comes to exploring his thoughts on religion in the film, Youmans explained, “Growing up, I was able to extrapolate life lessons from religious doctrine. For instance, there’s a sermon about how relationships are more important than material possessions, that’s a valuable lesson regardless of age or experience.”
Phillip Youmans on Directing
Making the film, Youmans didn’t have any issues directing the cast and crew to bring his vision to life, even working with well-known talents like Wendell Pierce. “Wendell is dope! Working with him was incredible!” Youmans said excitingly. “This dude is a talented actor and he approached the script with so much excitement that it was a dream come true! Mel, my producer, knows that Wendell is a hometown hero in New Orleans – working with him was insane,” Youmans added.
Youmans said that the production went really smooth for all involved in Burning Cane. He further explained that “the camera is like neutralize and since we are all students of the craft, that age or experience doesn’t matter, we are all just trying to make something cool. In truth, it went really smooth, I think what was great about all of the actors was that there wasn’t any placed or forced upon hierarchy because there was such a respect for the material. By the time we showed up on set, it was about implementing the project. There were never any conversations about talking down.”
With the passing of the virtuous John Singleton, who himself created a film masterpiece at a young age titled Boyz n the Hood, we can only hope that Phillip Youmans continues his success in developing amazing films that add to the legacy of Black filmmakers.
Directed by: Phillip Youmans
Starring: Wendell Pierce, Karen Kaia Livers, Dominique McClellan, and Braelyn Kelly
Production: Denizen Pictures