Phillip Youmans On 'Burning Cane'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The film "Burning Cane" is set in the cane fields of Louisiana. And at the center of this story is Helen Wayne, a religious woman whose faith helps her abide the challenges of daily life, including a dog with mange and heavy drinking from two of the most important men in her life.
Phillip Youmans is the director of "Burning Cane." He is the first African American to win the Founder's Award for Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival this past May. And he is - this may be the only way to put it - shockingly young. "Burning Cane" is now on Netflix. And Phillip Youmans joins us now from our studios in Culver City. Thank you so much for being with us.
PHILLIP YOUMANS: Thank you so much for having me.
SIMON: You made this film when you were 17.
YOUMANS: Yep, yep, yep. And it's crazy to look back at everything. You know, it's been roughly 2 1/2 years from the start of really working on that feature, you know?
SIMON: All right, a two-parter - how do you make a feature film that has been lauded at an age when most high school students are dealing with homework, video games and acne?
YOUMANS: Well, I'd say I was dealing with all those same things. But I don't know, man. I feel like I just sort of fell back into a story that I knew. You know, I was making something about a world that I was incredibly familiar with. You know, I grew up in the Southern Baptist church. So it felt like I could give an authentic insight into that story. You know, in terms of how we pulled this film together, I made it with my best friends in the world. You know, we had very, very limited resources. And my producers were the friends that I would've been hanging out with, whether or not we were shooting a film or not.
SIMON: How do you know so much about the human heart?
YOUMANS: Good question. I'd say - again, I was speaking about conditions within "Burning Cane" that I was personally familiar with, whether I've experienced them or they've been a part of my family's history. Take for example - Daniel Wayne is one of our three lead characters. And his son and their story is a pretty central story within the film. It's essentially the vessel for me to speak about, you know, the toxic nature of how vices are passed down from generation to generation. And his son Jeremiah, now that Daniel is out of work - Daniel and Jeremiah sort of spend their days ruminating in isolation with each other. And these are the moments when Daniel does begin to introduce Jeremiah to his vices. You know, there's a lot of toxicity there. But I think, really, my whole - the whole thing about the human heart and my sort of awareness of it, I think, just comes from my intention to humanize these people because I grew up in the church. And I separated from them. But my intention with "Burning Cane" was to create a whole sort of nuanced depiction of the people that sort of populated my life.
SIMON: It's a very nuanced view of religion in that you see it offers a sense of comfort, a sense of community.
SIMON: And yet, like any other human institution, I guess, maybe even a little more, it's rife with contradictions and hypocrisy and...
SIMON: ...Even cruelty.
YOUMANS: Yep. And I think - and especially within my community, I feel like it's a big part. Like I said, in the film, there's a - Daniel is succumbing to the pitfalls of toxic masculinity. But those same sort of pitfalls are perpetuated and reinforced by his own mother, you know, when she'll call him and tell him, I can't believe that you're letting a woman take care of you. You know, she doesn't recognize in principle how traditionalist and outdated that thinking is, you know? But I feel like all of those kind of thoughts are really, really sort of rigidly perpetuated by that same rigid Protestant ecosystem, you know? And so I think when you get to the church, and you're talking about sort of recreating a church service - something I was very, very sort of aware of and wanted to make sure the film completely steered clear of...
SIMON: A lot of the film is, in fact, church service and...
YOUMANS: Yeah. Definitely, definitely. I think in terms of speaking about something as sensitive as religion, it's important to not take a judgmental perspective in order for people to feel like there is at least some sort of understanding on both sides no matter where you feel or no matter where your opinion really lies, you know?
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BURNING CANE")
WENDELL PIERCE: (As Reverend Tillman) I've realized something that was concerning me - very concerning. These young people don't believe a damn word I'm preaching up there on that stage. And I know it. And if we were being truthful to ourselves, deep down, we all know it, too.
SIMON: The pastor - with a drinking problem - is played by Wendell Pierce. He's in "Death Of A Salesman" in London now. He might be the most talked about actor in the world at the moment.
YOUMANS: Ayy (laughter). Wendell is amazing, man.
SIMON: I mean, this is a guy who has to have - you know, who has to have calls from - you fill in the blank - the biggest producers and directors in the film business on his callback chain.
YOUMANS: Yeah, definitely.
SIMON: How do you get Wendell Pierce to appear in your first film at the age of 19?
YOUMANS: (Laughter). I was working at a beignet stand, raising money, you know, to put gas in my truck, raising money for the film. It was just my job, you know? And so I was working there in the months leading up to preproduction, taking on extra shifts. And I was waiting on a woman named Lula Elzy. Lula went to the same high school that Wendell and I went to - the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. And I spoke to Lula. I was waiting on her. And she asked me what I wanted to do in life. I told her I was gearing up shoot my first feature this summer. Then I walked her through all the characters. I told her that the - really the only character that hadn't been cast at that point was the preacher. And then she said, what do I think of Wendell Pierce playing the role? And then I like...
SIMON: Oh, my God.
YOUMANS: Then I like freaked out. I was like, you know, it would be amazing. But I have no way to get in touch with him, you know what I mean? I think Wendell is completely out of my sort of stratosphere. And then she just texted him right then. And then I got his email. Then I sent him the script. And then I said, hold up. Hold up. Don't read it. Then I went back into my room - essentially took a week to expand his role.
SIMON: Went back into your room. You didn't go...
SIMON: ...Back into your production office.
SIMON: You didn't talk with your lawyers. You went back into your - go ahead.
YOUMANS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah - went back into my room. And then I essentially took a week to expand his role and expand the sort of mayoral status that pastors have within that Baptist community. You know, I think Wendell coming on, I not only see a phenomenal actor, but his character I think created - just was like the final trio piece of creating that sort of wider portrait of the community because when you have that central character of the pastor, then you can really make a direct commentary on the sort of - on how much that sort of governing status affects the convictions of everyone else within the community.
SIMON: What can you do next? What do you want to do next?
YOUMANS: What do I want to do next? My next narrative feature is about the New Orleans chapter of the Black Panthers in 1970. I spent a lot of time with those Panthers early on in high school. And I'm just excited to bring their story out to the world. I think it's another character-grounded - character-driven, grounded story that I think definitely fits within my narrative of trying to tell, you know, nuanced humanizing black stories.
SIMON: Phillip Youmans. He's the director of "Burning Cane," now on Netflix. Thank you so much for being with us.
YOUMANS: Hey, thank you so much for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.