For months, 19-year-old Phillip Youmans had to hold fast to what he called “the best-kept secret” of his life. His first feature film, Burning Cane, which he wrote, shot, directed and edited himself, was accepted into the Tribeca Film Festival, making him the youngest director ever to have an entry there.
In March, when this year’s lineup was announced, the New York University freshman could finally exhale. Now, the stomach butterflies associated with great news have returned anew: Last week, Youmans won the Founders Award, the festival’s top prize for narrative film. He is the first black director to win the prize. Youmans also won the prize for best cinematography in a U.S. narrative feature film. And Wendell Pierce, who co-produced the film and stars as Reverend Tillman, took honors for best actor in a U.S. narrative feature film. Both Ava DuVernay and Black List creator Franklin Leonard tweeted their admiration.
“Everything has changed,” Youmans said when I reached him by phone Monday. “Now it feels like we actually have a trajectory. It feels like there are so many opportunities. … Production companies now wanna work with me. It’s crazy!”
Youmans made the film at age 17 with the goal of commenting on the strictures of religious fundamentalism and the ways men blame their internal faults on outside forces — in this case, the devil. It was a way to voice his discomfort with the beliefs held by members of his own family who harbor transphobic or homophobic attitudes.
“I grew up in the [Baptist] church,” Youmans said. “There’s so many things about the doctrine that I disagree with, and because of that I had to separate, but I’m not antagonizing or demonizing the church. … I still love my family despite our differences, but there are some things I just can’t come to terms with.”
Youmans grew up in New Orleans and first picked up a camera when he was 13. He attended the city’s high school for creative arts and became interested in filmmaking after acting in small roles in projects filming around New Orleans (Sex Ed, For A Dark Skin Girl and American Hero).
When he worked on American Hero, “I saw a bigger budget set in action and I saw the crews interacting with each other,” Youmans said. “There was so much going on behind the camera that became so clear to me. That was part of the catalyst for me to go behind the camera.”
He started to make short films and experiment.
Burning Cane drops its audience into the cane fields of rural Louisiana, following the life of Helen Wayne (Karen Kaia Livers) as she tries, to no avail, to cure her dog Jojo of mange. There are two violent, no-account drunks in Helen’s life: her son, Daniel (Dominique McClellan), and her pastor, Reverend Tillman.
That the Southern gothic aesthetic of Burning Cane recalls Benh Zeitlin’s work in Beasts of the Southern Wild is no accident — Zeitlin was a co-producer on the film. After the release of Beasts, Youmans contacted the director via Instagram.
After making a short based on the same concept, Youmans started an Indiegogo campaign to expand Burning Cane to a feature-length film. He combined that money with savings and family contributions to fund the film. Pierce, who has had roles on The Wire, Suits and Treme, agreed to take the role as Reverend Tillman based on the script. Youmans was too embarrassed by his attempts at short films to share them with the veteran actor.
“Even though they’re all older than me, none of them imposed any sort of hierarchy or pecking order,” Youmans said of his actors. “None of them were talking down to me because I was younger. The camera is a great equalizer with people on a set — usually, if it’s a respectful set. … I think they respected the vigor that I had.”
Burning Cane is clearly literate in the style of Charles Burnett, and the spare way Youmans lights his characters brings to mind the work of cinematographer Bradford Young (Arrival, Selma). Youmans also cited Barry Jenkins and Paul Thomas Anderson as inspirations. Youmans is the latest in a line of talented black NYU directors to make waves early in their career; Pariah and Mudbound director Dee Rees is another.
NYU students have to leave the dorms for the summer by May 13, Youmans said, so he’ll be moving to a Brooklyn apartment, where he’ll continue to work on projects already in motion, including a couple of new films with Stay Human and Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste, who also graduated from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. One is a short documentary that will accompany a release of the band’s recent concerts at the Village Vanguard. Youmans is also fine-tuning the script on his next narrative project, which will focus on the Black Panther Party in 1970s New Orleans.