“Burning Cane” an Array release now on Netflix is directed, produced, written, and co-edited by Phillip Youmans. He also served as his director of photography. The film was started when he was in high school.
Phillip Youmans is just 19-years-old and I was told by his public relations team that he would be a great interview. What his team didn’t tell me was how bright and downright friendly Phillip is. I’m not stretching myself when I offer that his people taught him right. Boiling it down, his ancestors would be proud because he’s not offering false modesty, he’s living his best life and embracing the journey.
Maybe there is something in the water flowing inside the seventh ward of New Orleans, where Youmans grew up. His first love was acting and as a junior at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), he formulated the story of “Burning Cane,” which centers on a woman of faith (Karen Kaia Livers), her son (Dominique McClellan), and her pastor (Wendell Pierce), in a religious community in rural Louisiana.
Youmans caught the attention of director Bench Setline (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) who eventually signed on as executive producer. The film screened at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, where he won the festival’s Best Narrative Feature Award, marking him as the first African-American director to ever win the prize; Youmans also won Best Cinematography and Wendell Pierce was named Best Actor. The film was also nominated for a Gotham Award for Breakthrough Director.
Ava DuVernay’s company ARRAY picked up distribution rights.
Here is what writer/director/producer/editor/DP Phillip Youmans had to share about making “Burning Cane,” now playing on Netflix.
Los Angeles Sentinel: Phillip you called me direct? No fancy Hollywood public relation handlers? I am impressed.
PHILLIP YOUMANS: (laughing) It’s just me.
LAS: Let me do a roll call. You are a 19-year-old filmmaker. Your first film, you completed in High School, which is now playing on Netflix. I’m applauding you, can you hear me?
PY: (laughing) Yes.
LAS: It was not an overnight success I know this because I know film. Take us back.
PY: I feel like I’ve definitely put in the work.
LAS: Did you expect this level of success for “Burning Cane?”
PY: I could have never expected it would work out this well. You put the work in and it’s sometimes not as easy to remind myself about how awesome things have panned out.
LAS: What was shooting schedule like?
PY: We started shooting July 17. We shot 17 days of principal and 21 days of pickups.
LAS: I saw the film in New York’s Tribeca Film Festival and I loved it then.
PY: Oh, word. Tribeca was crazy. I have a lot of crazy memories that came around Tribeca, where I saw and met people I thought I would never meet. I feel nothing but fortunate that things have worked out this well.
LAS: Are you still enrolled in NYU?
PY: No, I’m not. Technically still enrolled and I did finish a year [at NYU film school] but I don’t think that I will continue. I have this opportunity to make more films.
LAS: Do you live in New York?
PY: I’ve relocated to Los Angeles. A lot of opportunities have opened up for me, and I am taking advantage of these opportunities.
LAS: I can only imagine. Ava DuVernay is a wonderful role model.
PY: I’m blessed; I feel like we are friends. Hopefully, I can shadow on one of her sets.
LAS: Great idea. Also, ask her to shadow on some of her successful shows. They have a lot of dynamic directors working, and you can learn a lot.
LAS: What was amazing about working for ARRAY. What’s the experience been like working with them?
PY: Amazing! The team has an honorable mission as a distributor.
LAS: I love dealing with them. Quick and professional.
PY: They’re dedicated to promoting the work of filmmakers of color and women of all kinds, that’s the mission statement and it’s incredibly true.
LAS: So far, I’ve liked everything they have sent me.
PY: ARRAY is so dope too because it’s a company founded and almost completely staffed with brilliant Black women.
LAS: Well, “Burning Cane” is an unapologetically Southern Black story, so it fits.
PY: Exactly, it feels like a match made in heaven. I can’t lie, I feel mad-fortunate for that too.
LAS: What are you learning about being a filmmaker?
PY: That you need incredibly thick skin.
LAS: What’s next for you, Phillip Youmans?
PY: I’m doing a period piece about the [Black] Panthers. It’s about the New Orleans Black Panthers.
LAS: Is there someone in your family that was a part of the Black Panther movement?
PY: No, I met some Panthers at a screening, in New Orleans, but before I met them, I read the book; Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans by Orissa Arend. Then, I did a Goggle search and it leads me down a pigeon hole. I discovered there was a New Orleans chapter. Arend’s book chronicles the shoot-out that took place on September 15, 1970 [one of America’s largest standoffs took place between the New Orleans chapter of the Black Panther Party and multiple branches of law enforcement within the Desire housing projects in the city’s Ninth Ward. Leading up to the standoff, then-Governor John J. McKeithen vowed publicly not to allow a Panther foothold in “his state”]. That book was interesting because it tried to give the perspective of everyone involved including government [officials, Police as well as the [Black] Panthers. When I met a lot of Panthers, I realized that a lot of them don’t like the book. After getting their perspective on it, changed my entire outlook on everything. So, the film that I am making is based on the first-hand account [of what happened 09.15.1970] of those Panthers. It’s the story that I think that they should be able to define.
LAS: How many of the Black Panthers did you interview?
PY: Four; Mr. Baruk, Malik Rahim, head of defense for the chapter; Steve Green, the founder of the chapter; and Barbara Guyton. The film revolves around Barbara, who was 19 at the time, and the leader of the free Breakfast Program. She was the only one [directly] involved with the children. She is a bad-ass. Barbara lives in Los Angles, CA now.
LAS: Do you have any talent attached to your new film about the New Orleans Black Panthers?
PY: Not yet. I’m in that whole development phase. I’m still writing the screenplay.
LAS: I love talking to you! Name your three favorite films?
PY: I love so many. “There Will Be Blood,” “Touki Bouk,” and “Apocalypse Now.”
LAS: My three favorites are “Time of the Gypsies,” “Eat-Drink-Man-Woman” and “My Life as A Dog.”
PY: Wow, I don’t know those but I want to see them now. Text them to me, please.
LAS: Done and Done.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.