At only 19 years old, first time director Phillip Youmans is already making his mark on the film industry. His debut feature film, “Burning Cane,” won the Founders Award at the Tribeca Film Festival this April making Youmans the first Black director to win the award and the youngest director to show a film at the festival.
The film follows Helen Wayne (Karen Kaia Livers) an aging mother who struggles between her religious convictions and the love of her alcoholic son. The film also stars Wendell Pierce as Reverend Tillman, a reverend whose alcoholism interferes with his ability to command over his congregation. I got the opportunity to sit down with the director and speak with him about the film, Ava DuVernay, and what we can expect from him in the future:
The Knockturnal: Can you give us a quick synopsis of what the film is about?
Phillip Youmans: Burning Cane is about a rigidly Protestant community in rural Louisiana. It is about Helen Wayne, a mother and her son, Daniel Wayne, and his son Jeremiah and their pastor, Joseph Tillman during a particularly tumultuous point in all of their lives and it’s about Helen navigating their lives and trying to help the ones that she loves. Ultimately, some of those efforts prove fruitless, but it really is about Helen, guiding them through this particularly tumultuous point in all of their lives.
The Knockturnal: Where did that idea for the film come about?
Phillip Youmans: I knew I wanted to implant the situation within that rigid Protestant atmosphere, because that’s what I grew up in, in the Baptist church. I think the inspiration for being within that whole Southern ethos came from my experiences in the church, separating from the church, and also a lot of the stories my family told me about growing up in the church in low country South Carolina, where we used to always visit- often actually. I think the inspiration came from an amalgamation of those stories and my own experiences, and I felt like it was something that I knew. For my first feature, it felt like the right thing to do to ground it in an experience I could speak on authentically.
The Knockturnal: What do you want people to take away from seeing the film?
Phillip Youmans: I think the biggest things thematically that I want people to step away from…one: the dangers of enacting a fundamentalist interpretation of religion. Ultimately by the end of the film Helen takes Tillman’s words literally in terms of how to proceed with her son and that’s what the intention of that whole segment was about, but also about the dangers of how easily vices can be recycled and passed on in lineage and passed on from one generation to the next generation. Also, about the pitfalls of toxic masculinity and how a lot of the times that rigid Protestantism can uphold and perpetuate those antiquated values and in a way also perpetuate a lot of that toxic masculinity tendencies.
The Knockturnal: In some of your other interviews you’ve talked about wanting to tell Black stories. Do you feel a sense of obligation to tell Black stories? If so, where does that sense of obligation come from?
Phillip Youmans: Yes. I mean that’s who I am. That’s my family, you know what I’m saying? I feel like I grew up in a very proud Black household, but I think the Afrocentric nature of my artistic identity was cemented when I got to know the New Orleans [Black] Panthers early on in high school. They’re so unapologetically Black. I always thought that s*** was so dope and so fearless. I’d be lying if I told you that meeting them didn’t sort of heighten that for me and make me feel even prouder and cement that, “This is what I want to build. These are the stories I want to tell.” I think that’s where, in truth, a lot of that came from because I wanted to make that Panther film, even before Burning Cane, but Burning Cane was a perfect time sort of emotionally, and also resource-wise. It was a contained, grounded character story. That film is a period piece that I’m going to make after. I think my time with them made me-I’d always felt fortunate to be Black. I always felt that we were like- we just have…
The Knockturnal: Everything.
Phillip Youmans: Everything! And we drive culture.
The Knockturnal: Absolutely.
Phillip Youmans: And Black culture is popular culture. I’ve always felt that sense of pride, but that time with them took it to a different level and made it very clear to me about what I’m here for.
The Knockturnal: When you won Tribeca, Burning Cane still didn’t have a distributor, and now it’s being distributed by Ava DuVernay’s company, Array. How did that come about?
Phillip Youmans: After Tribeca, we were in the pool of distributors and I think the interesting thing about it is, I wrote a letter to Ava and them, because we were in talks about distributing with them anyway, but I wrote a letter making it clear what my choice was, who I wanted the film to go to. I sent it to Tilane Jones and Ava. Essentially it said, “I think our mission is the same.” They’re all about promoting the work of Black filmmakers, people of color, and women of all kinds and I always thought that was such a brave and honorable mission, especially as a distributor, to have that be straight up, “This is what we’re about. This is what we do.” For me, I thought that was really dope and I said that. I said that, in truth, our intentions, the stories that we want to tell, and the stories that we want to promote are the same and I think that resonated with them and took it to a different notch- to the point where in the next days after, Ava called me herself. I got a call and I was like “Hello, who’s this?” and she was like, “Hey, Phillip. It’s Ava DuVernay” and I was like “Oh s***”. I was in the library, so when I first started talking, I was like “Oh snap, Ava. Can I call you back in thirty seconds? I’m in a library right now” and she was like, “Okay, cool”. So I ended it, ran out, ran around the corner, and called her right back. She told me that they were going to make an offer and then, I felt like I grew wings at that point.
The Knockturnal: Has she given you advice on being a director?
Phillip Youmans: I think the biggest thing about Ava, especially in our relationship with Burning Cane, she’s given me a lot of advice, especially with marketing materials because she started out as a publicist. She has so much expertise. I’m so attached to everything with the film and so particular about everything…I think I did have to talk to her about separating myself and recognizing that sometimes- and not just sometimes, oftentimes, there are people that know more things about things than I do. Hearing that and trusting them and trusting their expertise and promoting the film and showing it in the best light was something that I knew I trusted them, but I also had to sort of snap that neurotic thing in the back of me that wants to control everything about it. I think getting some guidance from her in that way was important. Learning and practicing separating myself from the art that I’ve made and the promotion of the art and all of that kind of stuff. I think Ava’s expertise especially, outside of her work as a filmmaker, but just her background and knowing how to promote and market and get material out in the world and seen, is something I knew nothing about so I had to understand that it’s okay to coexist and not try to dip into things that I don’t know. Though I think I know better than anybody…I don’t. I think that was important to realize and understand. Outside of that, Ava’s one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met.
The Knockturnal: So, you’re 19? Or have you turned 20 yet?
Phillip Youmans: I turn 20 in February.
The Knockturnal: Yeah. Okay…so you’re 19. Are you surprised at all about how much success you’re having so early on?
Phillip Youmans: Completely. I mean, you make a film, you never know if anyone’s going to see it, let alone if it’s going to resonate with anybody, so everything after the fact- from one: it getting into Tribeca was a blessing. It being seen and people connecting with it and feeling something with it is a blessing. I felt like we had a lot of good energy behind the film. It felt like we had a lot of great pieces and moving forward with the film. I mean I submitted like everybody else through Film Freeway, so what’s happened with the film has been a fortune beyond my wildest dreams. I feel nothing but…I don’t know-
The Knockturnal: Gratitude, I guess.
Phillip Youmans: Yeah yeah yeah. Exactly.
The Knockturnal: As a Gen Z filmmaker, what do you think about the production value or quality of viral content online?
Phillip Youmans: Hmm. I think nowadays making content is so democratized. The democratization of any art form is a good thing. Though it may be shaking up the industry at a higher level, it is important that more voices have access to make more stories. Period point-blank. I think it’s also how an art moves forward. Once it is democratized and materials- if you think about it, cameras that make any sort of high-end production value are so out of the range of anybody, in terms of availability. We shot Burning Cane on a Black Magic camera. The guy who was supposed to be my DP gave me all of his gear to shoot it and when I couldn’t use that anymore, my high school had a black Ursa Mini that I picked up the rest of principal to shoot. I’m just like anybody else. I love memes, parody Instagram accounts, stuff like that…it’s different and it coexists. Within film as a medium, I feel that you can look at, even outside of film and television, online content, viral content, like you said is also a part of that discussion now, because it’s so widely circulated, but all of that does have its own plant and footing outside of that main narrative hold of film and television. Either way, all in all, you can make a film on anything now. I think a film like Tangerine proves that. It’s a beautiful movie and the fact that it was shot on an iPhone threw people for a loop.
The Knockturnal: Are you still a student at NYU?
Phillip Youmans: So…I’m technically still enrolled, but I took the semester off…I see the value in school and when I came here it was because it felt like, one: I didn’t know anything that was going to happen with Burning Cane after I submitted it. I tried to forget about it. But I felt like going to a place like [NYU] because I didn’t know what was going to happen with the film. It felt like it would give me my best opportunity to succeed coming out of New Orleans, going to a big city. But also it’s another maelstrom of fortunate circumstances that Tribeca was the vessel that really wanted the film. They were right here in New York. I was here. I walked to that first meeting. I’m still enrolled…kind of unclear about school moving forward. I might come back and get my degree for myself later on.
The Knockturnal: You wrote Burning Cane, directed it, edited it, you were your DP, and I’ve seen that you’ve acted before. Which of those roles do you feel the most comfortable in?
Phillip Youmans: Um, writing and directing. I feel comfortable shooting it as well, but shooting it was more out of necessity in the case of Burning Cane than it was an initial plan, but also in hindsight, I couldn’t even imagine seeing it through anybody else’s- or having it done through anybody else’s eyes. I have to say, there is a mind split that can sometimes come when you’re directing and DP’ing, that I think is important to acknowledge especially in connection with dealing with actors and giving them the attention they need. It was super cool because my actors were brilliant and we had done enough preparation beforehand that coming on set was kinetic and fast-paced and we were moving. There was still that mutualistic, active dialogue. I think they also made a lot of great choices that helped me be able to work with that mind split and think of things character-wise and thinking about that in harmony with technical aspects that come with shooting something and being your own DP.
The Knockturnal: Are you based in NY?
Phillip Youmans: I lived in New York for the past year. These days I’m in LA because that’s where my producer for my next film is and we’re workshopping it there. I mean, I miss the hell out of New York. Coming here makes me miss it even more.
The Knockturnal: It’s the best city in the world.
Phillip Youmans: It’s the best. But it’s also like so expensive … But it is dope…it feels like to get something that feels as livable, it really is an arm and a leg and anywhere else you go you can live more comfortably.
The Knockturnal: Absolutely, but it doesn’t have the same feel.
Phillip Youmans: Exactly! But you don’t pay for the comfortability living here. You know what I mean?
The Knockturnal: Absolutely, you pay for views.
Phillip Youmans: Yeah yeah yeah yeah.
The Knockturnal: You’re originally from Louisiana?
Phillip Youmans:Yeah, I’m from Louisiana!
The Knockturnal: What do you want the world to know about Louisiana through your filmmaking?
Phillip Youmans: I feel like New Orleans and Louisiana is a hotbed for art. It’s like anywhere in the South. There are a lot of issues, a lot of conservative beliefs that run through a lot of people, and a lot of that sort of racial hierarchy people typically associate with the South. It’s still alive and well, but amongst all of that, especially amongst Black people, there’s very few people in the world that compare to the sort of artists and the output that comes from New Orleans. It really is a cultural hotbed. For me, there’s a haunting beauty to the South both socially and physically. The South is the same place where people will ask you want to eat, call you baby, and open the door for you, but the same people who are doing that are the same people putting on the white hoods…you know. It’s diametrically opposed to the idea of what a perfect place is supposed to be, but to me, there’s very few places that have the sort of kinetic energy and story that the South has.
The Knockturnal: I’ve read somewhere that you’re being considered an auteur already. Do you agree with that?
Phillip Youmans: I don’t….know…I feel like it’s so hard to even say it without sounding egotistical. I like to do as much as I can on a film. I like to have it be as much of a driving force behind my central vision as much as possible, but film is a collaborative medium. I wouldn’t have been able to make this film without the help of my best friends as my producers. Saying, in terms of the creative voice that went forward, yes, it was a singular voice on my part, but I also think it’s very difficult to label myself an auteur in any way like that personally because that can get so arrogant sounding. Even if that’s the mechanism that the final creative voice of the film moves through…I don’t know. I think acknowledging that personally isn’t constructive in knowing how many people you need to make a film happen.
The Knockturnal: Who are your directorial inspirations?
Phillip Youmans: Djibril Diop Mambéty, Barry Jenkins of course, Paul Thomas Anderson, I love Claire Denis…Terrence Malik I think is amazing. I think Tree of Life, Days of Heaven- Days of Heaven might be one of the most beautiful films. Period. Kubrick of course, though I feel stylistically I have nothing aligned with Kubrick. I really appreciate his work, kind of like anybody else. And she’s a music video director…I haven’t seen Queen & Slim yet, but Melina [Matsoukas] seems like she’s one of the dopest directors to work with. Period.
The Knockturnal: Where do you see your career going in 10 years?
Phillip Youmans: I want to be continuing to work on my own narrative features, concentrating on that while also being as fluid as possible and taking on other projects, whether that be a music video for an artist and a song that I actually like. I’m fortunate thus far. I’ve been working on projects where I feel an attachment to the art. I want to be able to traverse mediums, but still, ground myself within that scope of being a narrative feature-driven director. I don’t want to ever stop myself from working on good art because of anything- I don’t want to stop myself from working on a music video just because it’s a music video if the art is good, and the song is good, and the artist is dope. At what point do you turn away from good art? In what ways is that beneficial to you as an artist if you’re turning away from a chance to collaborate with other artists? I want to be continuing to make work that I can get behind and sleep with at night.
The Knockturnal: So what’s next for you then?
Phillip Youmans: The next film, straight up, is about the New Orleans chapter of the Black Panthers in the 1970s. That’s my next film. I just finished the first draft of that film and now I’m in heavy development with my producer out in LA. We’re meeting and workshopping the script and I want to push that film through the labs. I feel like it would be great to get those outside mentors because I know the labs, especially the Sundance Labs, have an insane set of mentors so it would be great to get their insight, especially moving into the next feature because I do want it to grow and get better. That’s next for me. There’ll be other projects that’ll be dropping in that time frame. I did a short with Saint Heron called Nairobi. A doc I did with Jon Batiste with his time at the Vanguard is going to come out and some music videos that I’ve done will drop also, but my main personal focus as an artist is getting that Panther story off the ground.
Burning Cane premieres on Netflix November 6th and is currently in select theatres across the country. You can find my review of the film here on The Knockturnal.