Tribeca 2019: Burning Cane, from teen director Phillip Youmans, explores spiritual inheritance

Siddhant Adlakha

May 08, 2019 16:38:46 IST

Burning Cane is a momentous arrival. It’s a record-setter on paper alone: Phillip Youmans, who wrote, shot and edited the film when he was seventeen — and still in high school — becomes not only the youngest director to win Best Narrative Feature at Tribeca, but the first African American (Youmans, now nineteen, was also awarded Best Cinematography in a US Narrative Feature, with Wendell Pierce winning Best Actor), The film’s distinctions, however, extend far beyond its accolades.

Tribeca 2019: Burning Cane, from teen director Phillip Youmans, explores spiritual inheritance

Wendell Pierce in a still from Burning Cane. Image via Twitter

While it feels like a ripe opportunity to predict the future of movies, vis-à-vis the digitally-entrenched Gen Z psyche — not unlike Amiko last year, which twenty-year-old Yoko Yamanaka imbued with a manic vlogger energy — Burning Cane owes much to the history of Black southern cinema; a touch of Julie Dash (or Beyoncé’s Lemonade, a recent descendant of Daughters of the Dust) with a sprinkle of Beasts of the Southern Wild, whose director Benh Zeitlin executive produced Youmans’ film. Though where Lemonade and Beasts of the Southern Wild painted their bayous with magical realism, there’s a jaded harshness to Burning Cane. Its stylistic flourishes make it feel like a modern ghost story at times; a fitting outcome, given its tale of spiritual inheritance.

Its premise, a religious protestant woman wrestling with her faith as she cares for both a volatile son and preacher gone astray, finds its roots in Youmans short film The Glory. But as a feature-length production, Burning Cane is a living, breathing document on male vulnerability.

Karen Kaia Livers was originally the film’s casting director, but Youmans insisted she play Helen Wayne, a tough-as-nails elderly Black woman who hobbles between her shanty home in the marshlands (where she farms chickens and cares for her dying dog) and the home of her son Daniel (Dominique McClellan), a troubled alcoholic raising a son of his own, Jeremiah (Braelyn Kelly). Daniel lives in the shadow of his brother, a war hero, and his father, a man who worked hard until the day he died. Having been recently laid off, Daniel now spends his time drinking in front of the television.

Despite his aggression towards his diligent wife Sherry (Emyri Crutchfield), there’s an occasional tenderness to Daniel — moments where he dances with his son, or moments where he makes sure he drinks his milk — but these instances of kindness are marred by Daniel’s demons. Youmans dramatizes this mixed inheritance as Daniel making young Jeremiah drink as well, as if to portray an absurd series of overlapping memories from childhood.

Elsewhere, local pastor Tillman (Wendell Pierce, The Wire) lectures his parish on the evils temptations of the devil, though his abstract musings become literal in his private moments. He, too, drinks away his troubles, leading to outbursts at the women around him (including at Helen, who helps his drunk ass stumble home regardless).

At first, Youmans films Tillman with a sense of reverence whenever he’s at the pulpit. He gazes up at the troubled preacher as he stands upright, firm, resolute in his equivocations — though as Tillman descends further into his own frustrations at a world changing far too quickly (he blames queer progress on Black women not raising their children right), Youmans’ camera begins to tilt, ever so slightly, like his own worldview on this apparent male role model were being knocked off-course. Eventually, Tillman begins to fade into the backdrop of his parish choir.

While men like Tillman and Daniel take center stage in the film, Youmans films Black women with a devoted affection. He walks a tightrope between how the men of Burning Cane see them — as objects or intrusions — and how they see themselves, or perhaps deserve to be seen. He crafts intimate scenes involving both Daniel’s mother and his wife — private moments in the bathroom, which he shoots tastefully — though he provides contrast not by presenting these women through Daniel’s gaze, but by remaining fixed on Daniel’s face as he indulges in pornography, shifting the gaze away from those who would ordinarily be its victim. As if to turn the gaze back on the gaze itself.

Each character has their vice (Helen, too, has her cigarettes) and the moment they indulge, the film enters an almost abstract realm. Conversations become akin to voiceover, as the sound skips forward in time, to some later chat or argument, while the picture remains trapped in the past. Daniel argues with his wife, but the frame zooms in on Daniel, lazing on the couch, lit only by the television as she clears up his mess, moments before the argument begins. It feels like a companion piece to Khalik Allah’s Jamaican history doc Black Mother in so many regards, from its oblique use of human voice over disjointed imagery, to its reverence of the maternal, to its examination of spiritual history. Though unlike Allah’s film, Youmans isn’t satisfied with mere documentation.

Perhaps the most stunning achievement of Burning Cane is the way Youmans shoots it. Scenes often play out in long takes, each aimed at letting male characters like Daniel and Tillman wrestle with their own vulnerability. Where the camera follows the movements of women like Helen, it holds on the men, long enough for them to open up and shut back down — trapping them within their own conflicted emotions.

Each close up, even when set indoors, depends on natural light. Massive windows offer blinding bursts of white (you can almost feel the heat of the marsh radiating from the screen), though the characters usually move far away, further into the interiors and into shadow, wrestling with the light itself. Their skin reflects it just enough that they become shapes, or mere shells of themselves, slumped over in the bathroom.

Youmans’ characters are connected by their love for one another, though each dynamic comes with its own caveats, often rooted in male aggression and insecurity. The act of burning cane fields in Louisiana feels similarly dichotomous; it prepares for new growth and new harvest, but it releases an invisible toxicity — a cycle that continues unbridled like the inheritance of male anger, whether it lives on the surface, as it does in Tillman, or simmers silently like Daniel.

At a mere seventy-eight minutes long, Burning Cane still feels like a meticulous spiritual journey, in which characters wrestle with their own love and religious convictions when presented with entire histories of societal ills that now reside within singular persons. And while the film eventually comes down on the more nihilistic side of this dynamic, it does so with a haunting visual panache that both draws the eye, and stirs the soul.

Updated Date: May 08, 2019 16:38:46 IST

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