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Phillip Youmans on ‘Burning Cane’ and Empowering Black Audiences



Phillip Youmans

Alexis Hunley

This story is part of the 2020 Project, a special men’s health project that examines the lives of 20 different 20-year-old men across America. To learn more about the others, click here.

When the sky is cloudy, a BMW turns off its lane on a one-way street through lush, green fields. In the driver’s seat is a distraught middle-aged preacher smoking and sipping from a bottle while the radio reveals details of the murder of a woman. A man made of cloth whose walls are closing.

This is Phillip Youman’s favorite scene in Burning Cane, A film he wrote and directed for two years, starting when he was still in high school. It plays the main role The cable Awarded Best Narrative Film at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival (when Youmans was 19), alum Wendell Pierce impressed Ava DuVernay so much that her production company Array distributed the film and brought it to Netflix.

In broad lines, Burning stick is about a black community fighting for purpose and dignity as their church cannot solve the complications of race and poverty. Youmans likes the driving scene because it depicts that tension and because he filmed it – sitting in the bed of a pickup truck and shooting backwards on a tripod.

Then there’s the coincidence that happened shortly after when local sheriffs temporarily halted production. As Youmans recalls, the manager of the Louisiana plantation where they were shooting had called the police on Youmans’ crew about trespassing even though they had requested permission to shoot. “It was this white guy in a souped-up truck with huge wheels, Confederate-type shit,” he says. “It was a little scary because he lied. He clearly didn’t like black people. “

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As a director, Youmans says he’s drawn to projects with nuanced, humanizing stories about the Black experience. He appreciates and can name all movie greats (from Stanley Kubrick to Spike Lee and Terrence Malick), but like many people of his generation, he is keenly interested in creating his own style that is shaped by his personal perspective. “I get most of my inspiration from music and my experiences,” he says. “When I started to develop my own style and become more confident, I started to look less outside and more inside.”

Gen Z is the first generation to grow up in a time when anyone with a mobile phone and video editing software like Final Cut Pro can make a movie, and anyone with access to YouTube can share it. Youmans’ setup is more advanced, but not by much. The youthful realization that we are all easily seen in front of the camera, good or bad, seems to influence the unfiltered tone of his work. Some scenes are shot from the flattering perspective of a tilted camera that keeps rolling. (A New York Times Critics praised the effect by praising the “haunting” film.)

The prohibitively expensive creative tools of past generations have been democratized, which means that the future of films may come from those who only stream them now. Youmans hopes his success will inspire other young filmmakers to tackle bold, ambitious projects, while signaling that everyone should take young voices more seriously. “I’ve learned in many ways that age is just a number,” he says.

Breaker

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Phillip Youmans

Alexis Hunley

YOUMAN’S INSPIRATION write and direct Burning stick goes back to his upbringing at Southern Baptist Church where he saw people who followed the preacher’s will, even when it occasionally resulted in embarrassment or hatred of others. “I couldn’t come to terms with any kind of shame, so naturally I’ve become estranged from it,” he says. “And that’s why I wanted to create a story about the dangers of following it in a very literal, fundamentalist sense.”

But his desire to get behind the camera was motivated by a short stay in front of it. About five years ago, local tax incentives made his hometown New Orleans a cinematic hot spot. Youmans auditioned for several roles before landing a small part in the 2015 action comedy American hero. On the set, he loved to listen as director Nick Love explained his vision for each scene. “I was tired of auditioning for things, not booking things,” he says. “I felt that becoming a filmmaker would definitely put my fate more in my own hands because I was going to be the content creator.”

Shortly thereafter, Youmans picked up his first camera and made his first real (and now timeless) short film. No sickness in the arms which never gained wider distribution. not how Burning Cane, whose storyline reflects his mission as a filmmaker, No sickness in my arms was a way to explore his nascent identity. The story revolves around a creative recluse who explores what it’s like to be an introvert. “It’s about a child you are obsessed with 2001: A Space Odyssey,Youmans says. “He lives alone in these abandoned project brownstones in New Orleans. It was like me, but clearly not me. “

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As a high school student at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), he had made short films for local festivals and reached out to one of his teachers, Isaac Webb, about the idea Burning stick. Instead of advising Youmans to keep this one small, Webb urged him to grow up. Youmans accepted that. “I said, ‘No, damn right. Yes, we can do a feature. ‘”

Then he met with the Louisiana chapter of the Black Panthers during his senior year of high school. “Seeing people who don’t apologize to themselves and who don’t apologize for who they are is a skill for everyone, especially every young black kid they meet,” he says. Films should offer that too.

Breaker

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Phillip Youmans

Alexis Hunley

TO ACTUALLY shoot Burning Cane, Youmans recruited high school friends as crew members and borrowed the school’s semi-professional film equipment. To fund the production, he worked on a beignet booth where he met a NOCCA alum, award-winning choreographer and dancer Lula Elzy. When he told her about the movie, she suggested another NOCCA alum, Wendell Pierce, to star. In fact, the two were close friends, so Elzy shared the actor’s contact information. Youmans rewritten the script to give Pierce a bigger role. “I sent this warm email,” he says. “And he did. He came down, shot, and knocked it out. “

Most of the film was shot in the summer of 2017, followed by a year of post-production editing. Youmans worked his way through the learning curve. “All the days, hours and minutes were important,” says Webb, who advised the project. “Phillip has always made his passion a priority.”

In August 2018, during his freshman year at New York University, Youmans submitted Burning stick to several film festivals including Tribeca. He had to wait a few months to hear the verdict. This email came while he was in a psychology class: Tribeca organizers – without knowing his age – wanted to meet with him and Pierce. The advertisement helped him find a manager at Untitled Entertainment.

In May 2019, Youmans attended the Tribeca Awards ceremony where he was announced as the winner of this year’s Founders Award. This made him not only the youngest director of the festival, but also the first black director to win the award. “I might be the first at Tribeca, but I don’t think I’ll be the last,” he said. The film also won Best Actor and Best Cinematography.

Phillip Youmans

Alexis Hunley

Youmans and his team decided to email DuVernay about the spread only to find out she was a fan. “I observe Burning stick and understood what the jury was saluting, ”she says. “Capturing and refining a nuanced story with such accuracy – at the age of 19? It’s more than impressive. ”

Since then he has made other films, such as the five-minute short film Imagine a lunar colony which debuted on Hulu this year during Black History Month. It is the fictional, documentary story of a 16-year-old aspiring filmmaker from 1970 who asks his family to imagine 2020. The result is optimistic but honest about healthy relationships and their imperfections. Next a function is called Magnolia blossom, on the formation of a Black Panther chapter in New Orleans in the late 1960s.

“There will be some kind of spiritual continuum,” he says. “You will feel the same voice but see the evolution.” We will watch.

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