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Exclusive: ‘Burning Cane’ Director Phillip Youmans Talks His New Film, ‘November’ and His Burgeoning Film Career
The last time I spoke with Phillip Youmans, it was in a restaurant in Lower Manhattan, a few weeks ahead of the release of his debut feature film, Burning Cane.
He had just become the youngest winner of Tribeca’s Founder’s Award, at 19 years old, and the first Black director to achieve that feat. Now, a year later, Burning Cane is streaming on Netflix, he’s put out a few other projects, including Imagine a Moon Colony, for Hulu as part of their Black History Month programming, has been featured in DAZED, on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list, and more recently, he was profiled in Vogue Magazine.
He’s been on a non-stop rise in his career, one Youmans tells me over the phone, that he’s grateful for. Most recently, he put out a film called, November, which is currently streaming on theshed.org until November 7th. Originally, the piece was a play named Help, written by the formidable, Claudia Rankine. As Rankine puts it, her original intent was to, “confront, address, and have conversations with white men regarding white dominance and their white privilege. This line of inquiry was [my] attempt to understand how we arrived at 2016 with a white nationalist in the White House”. Unfortunately, because of COVID-19’s impact on live performances here in New York City, any possibility of staging Help in its original format had gone out the window. That’s where Youmans came in. “I was brought to November by Jane Rosenthal and Alex Poots and they reached out to me about November to see if I wanted to come on board….I was really attached to it. One: the opportunity to work with Claudia, [like I said] the chance to make a political statement with my art, but also because I have this very real reverence for Black women and the experiences of Black women….It was kind of a no brainer across the board”.
And although Youmans didn’t question much whether he wanted to be part of the project, making sure it came together wasn’t as easy as his decision to sign on. For one, he had to adapt Rankine’s play to fit into a completely different medium, and he only had four weeks to do it. “I wanted to bring forth free association into the project. I wanted to have people be able to come to the project, and hear Claudia’s very, very powerful, very affecting words, and pair it with imagery that allowed for some free association. It felt like I was going to marry this vignette of performance with outside vignettes, with documentary elements. It felt like this could be a snapshot piece, like a slice of the life of the narrator recounting their experiences.” Ever the collaborator, he credits the team beside him for helping him get it done within his month-long timeframe, especially his producer Ayesha Nadarajah. “I had the help of my amazing producer, to help assemble and pull everything from a logistical standpoint together. Her and the help of Laura Aswad, the producer of The Shed.”
From the moment he landed in New York, it was a rush of conversations, ever-evolving scripts, and coordinating between his team and the team at The Shed. But it wasn’t just lighting, sound, and staging, the director had to be concerned with, he also had a new worry: coronavirus. He tells me that, of course, everyone followed proper CDC guidelines, wearing masks, and staying socially distant as much as possible, but that these safety precautions, fortunately, didn’t do much to dampen anyone’s spirit. “I don’t think it’s changed as much of the spirit of what we do. If anything, it’s made it even more of a group, sort of community feeling, that everyone has to go through the same sort of protocols. But it’s important. People’s safety is the most important thing.” Of course, he laments on “the old way” of shooting, where less than a year ago, we were all free to carry on in close proximity without having to worry about wearing masks and sanitizing our hands every twenty minutes, but he’d rather be doing something than nothing at all. “It just feels good to be back in production. It feels good to be making things. Period. So, for that, I feel super grateful.”
Throughout our conversation, Youmans is quick to emphasize just how much he believes in the message of November and how grateful he is to have a chance to make a statement with his work. It was important to him, with this film, to show the juxtaposition between the ways white privilege can rear its ugly head in our lives, and the eternal commitment Black people have towards finding joy in any situation. So, I posed the question, “What is Black joy to [him]?” “Black joy to me is being able to live and determine our own destiny. To love freely, to love unconditionally, and really be who we are a hundred ten percent, and to have that sort of spirit of determining our own destiny; reverberate across color lines and across race lines. Even in the face of everything we go through, considering the harshness of [it], just as Black people on a cultural level, Black joy is defined by the counterpoint to that. I feel like we’re so soulful, and we have so much life, considering everything we’ve gone through as a people…. The joy is really something I’m trying to highlight as an artist.” I think he succeeds in doing so.
Weaved between vignettes of Black women monologuing about interactions with Trump supporters while waiting in line, there are images of Black couples driving aimlessly in parking lots, arms in the air, feeling the wind on their backs, a group of Black men playing a game of pickup basketball, and even a few shots of Youmans and his friends/cast members enjoying a dip in the pool, amongst other things. My next question for the Louisiana native, of course, is how he maintains his own joy with all that’s going on in the world right now. “Making sure I’m invested in real-time and in the emotional relationships in my life; my best friends, my family, my mom, my sister. Finding time to stay in tune with that is the most important thing….That’s been huge.” You can hear the reverence in Youmans’ voice when he speaks about his mother and his sister, two Black women who he says have influenced him greatly in his life. They came up more than a few times in our talk and each time he expressed his love and awe for their support. He’s gotten a lot closer to them in quarantine, speaking with them quite a lot, and I believe that bond he shares with them is evident in his work. November, although not written by Youmans, is another one of his works that centers Black women. Burning Cane, while highlighting themes of toxic masculinity and religious fundamentalism, really seeks to explore the way those behaviors in men affect the women in their lives. Another Black woman he reveres? Claudia Rankine. “She was amazing….I love Claudia. She’s really, really, dope, whippingly intelligent. Her opinions and her POV about everything always comes from such a carefully, calculated, intelligent, full-hearted perspective. It’s very, very inspiring to be around someone who works that way and who is that way. In working with her, I’ve only had amazing things to say about her, honestly.” A sentiment, I’m sure Rankine returns considering the careful and considerate way Youmans went about bringing her piece to life.
November is a stunning film, filled with deep performances that, for me as a Black woman, felt like listening to my friends and family talk about their personal experiences. Each actress brought her own flair and personality to her role, highlighting the vast differences between Black women’s experiences. One of my favorite parts of the film included a moment when the camera “backflips” from the stage where an actress, Zora Howard, is performing, into a sea of actors. Howard appears in the crowd, reciting a line, pantomimed by a white male actor positioned in front of the camera. It’s an interesting shot that echoes the ways in which white men are often brought to the forefront of conversation, while Black women are left behind and forgotten. The film is filled with what I’m coming to realize might be Youmans’ directorial signatures. There were a multitude of jump cuts, seemingly handheld tracking shots, and several closeups and low angle shots meant to illuminate and give power to his subjects.
Already I’ve seen talk labeling Youmans an ‘auteur’, but when I try to ascribe the label to him, he gets a little squeamish. “I can’t really indulge much in what that means or who’s saying that. The biggest thing is that I’m making films, especially in the narrative feature space at this point. I’m just trying to make sure that I stay true to films and projects that personally resonate with me, that I have substantive attachment to. I’m separating more from, whatever [being an auteur] means, in terms of a wider conversation, or a wider look at what the word auteur means, really. As a filmmaker, I feel like I’m a true artist. I try to attach myself to the things that really resonate with me….It’s just hard to say that about yourself. It’s dope to be considered that. It’s dope to be spoken of in that way, because I want to say I’m an uncompromising collaborative in that way, but that I’m really firm in my convictions as a filmmaker. That’s what I feel is the “auteur” spirit. But it’s weird to point the finger at myself and call myself that.” A sentiment, I find completely understandable, although I assure him it’s more than okay if he nods his head along in agreement at the moniker being thrown his way. I also wonder, as someone in the same generation as him, how he feels about so much of the chatter concerning how young he is. He recognizes and is okay with the fact that his being 20-years-old is a big part of his narrative. “It’s just part of the story, I guess. I also feel like it’s dope that I’ve had the opportunities that I’ve had at the age that I’ve had them. I also understand that my age is hard to separate from the story of it all. At the end of the day, as an artist, I want my work to be appreciated no matter what extraneous factors or considerations are attached.”
His work, for the large part, tries to focus on Black joy and his own perspective of Blackness as it informs his world. I ask if any of the conversations swirling around on social media about which Black stories are being told in the media affect the way he chooses his projects, and it is something Youmans is cognizant of, always. “I want to be representative of what Black people want to see. I want to be a part of that vanguard, in terms of expanding the view- and the way that we as Black people get to live in the film space. I want to be a part of broadening that, a part of widening that. I think my work is doing that. At least, that’s really what I’m trying to do.”
At this point, I switch gears, to more lighthearted questions. I’m curious to know what inspires him and informs the worldview he speaks about so much. I noticed, in another interview, he talked about music, a medium very centered in the lives of Gen Z people. He rattles off for me a list of artists, from what I refer to as his “expansive library”, some that include Interwave (a Latinx band from LA), Raveena, Liv.e, Aminé, Crumb, and lots of Orion Sun. He also cites older influences such as The Velvetones, Elis Regina, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Aretha Franklin, The Beach Boys, Irma Thomas, The OJs, Marvin Gaye, and so many more. Bossa nova, alternative R&B, and soul music have been in heavy rotation for him recently as they serve as some of his inspo for his upcoming Black Panthers centered film, Magnolia Bloom. We don’t get much into it because as Youmans tells me it’s constantly evolving so he’d rather not divulge many details. But, he has been making playlists to help keep him motivated.
Another source of motivation for him is his native Louisiana. Youmans was born and raised in New Orleans, where he calls home. “New Orleans is home. It’s been the source of me developing my entire creative POV. That, my mother, my upbringing, everything that city represents, and has brought to me has been so cataclysmic. I have nothing but love and reverence for New Orleans. I’m making my next feature (Magnolia Bloom), the bulk of our principal photography is in New Orleans. I’m trying to bring all the work I can there and really represent the city in the best way I can.” For a city so well known, its film scene is a little less known, but Youmans does good on bringing it more in the spotlight. Later, I wonder out loud which of his peers Youmans is inspired by as well. He takes quite a while to ponder before answering, making sure he doesn’t forget anyone. When he does have an answer, he names Garrett Bradley, Zac Manuel, and Nikki Houston. As for films he’s seen lately, he names Black Mother, but he admits he hasn’t been too tapped into what’s been coming out (mostly in the festival circuit) because he’s so focused on production for Magnolia Bloom, as well as what’s been going on in politics and with the election.
Surprisingly, our conversation dips into something easier; sharing film recommendations, discussing favorite directors, and what we’ve been doing in quarantine. Youmans, as I’ve come to learn of him, gives a somewhat profound and serious answer, with a breezy, yet earnest delivery. “I’ve gotten better about using my time more productively. The more intense bends of isolation has helped me to key in. I feel like I’ve kind of rediscovered what brought me here in a lot of ways in quarantine. I feel like that same sort of tenacious, working spirit that I’ve always had, really came back in a big way….I feel like my work has been a super therapeutic thing, so I’ve been a lot better about managing my time; diving into my work when outside pressures seem more intense because it helps me deal with them. It helps me cope.” When I mention my penchant for baking during my quarantine, it jogs his memory of the one new definitive skill he claims to have learned, cooking. “I know how to fry rice. I know how to cook bacon and cook a whole breakfast. I make the best French toast with brioche bread. All that kind of stuff. All those recipes. All that cooking has come from quarantine too.” But he’s partial to his signature dish chicken fried rice with brioche bread.
We wind up the conversation, talking about different odds and ends; playlists, astrology, Youmans’ older sister, Sydney, meditation and yoga, and healthier living practices. In our friendly rapport, it was easy to get sidetracked talking about random things, something I think speaks to how open and easy-going Youmans is himself. Finally, before signing off, he tells me about what new work he has coming up. A new short film (that he can’t speak much about yet), some music videos, and pre-production on his next feature, Magnolia Bloom. If Burning Cane and November have anything to say about it, I’m sure Magnolia Bloom will be yet another success in his filmography.
November streams on theshed.org until November 7th.
Preview YouTube video A Peek at “November,” Directed by Phillip Youmans | THE SHED