Living in California, Youmans is

Phillip Youmans

  • Words Sharine Taylor
  • Photography Justin Chung
  • Styling Marquise Miller

The 20-year-old director talks to Sharine Taylor about walking the tightrope between teen prodigy and award-winning filmmaker.

Issue 36

,

Films

  • Words Sharine Taylor
  • Photography Justin Chung
  • Styling Marquise Miller

1. Burning Cane began as a short script written during Youmans’ junior year of high school. After financing principal photography with savings and crowdfunding, he contacted Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin for assistance turning it into a feature.

2. Youmans’ previous directorial projects include Nairobi (2019), a short film made with Saint Heron—Solange Knowles’ creative agency—about a West African family’s immigration to New York.

NOTES

If Phillip Youmans had to describe the past few years in one word, he’d choose “blooming.” “It really does feel like a period of tremendous emotional, personal and creative growth,” he says, speaking on the phone from his current base in LA. That’s to be expected from someone with Youman’s CV: Last year he became the Tribeca Film Festival’s youngest featured director and the first African American to receive the revered Founders Award with his debut, Burning Cane—a startling accomplishment for someone who, at the time the film was produced, was in their final year of high school.1

Burning Cane is a visually poetic character study of how a mother, her son and their pastor navigate personal demons against the backdrop of Louisiana’s rural Baptist church. The film neither condemns nor shames faith but rather interrogates how it functions—and sometimes falters—in the lives of its parishioners, a question that loomed large for Youmans throughout his childhood in New Orleans.

Youmans is enrolled in NYU’s film and television program and, while he says he still has his student ID in his wallet, he’s pressed pause on his studies for now to pursue opportunities in LA. “I was staying in class more for what my family would think as opposed to what I thought, and that’s really not a way to live,” he says. “I don’t see school, or a return to school, being part of the equation any time soon.”

You acted before deciding to direct. Was there a moment that gave you the push that you needed to make the switch?
It was a combination of things. The biggest was that I felt like a lot of the creative control I was interested in was on the other side of the camera. By being a director, I could have more control over my career. I’ve been writing plays since I was a kid, and I was acting in theater before I went into small roles in films, so I’ve always been fascinated by storytelling in general.2

Another big realization came when I decided it was time to stop being a production assistant or gaffer on other people’s sets. All those positions are incredibly important, but I realized that if I wanted to be a director, I had to make my own stuff and stop thinking about other people’s work. I just felt like that idea of having to climb up the ladder—you have to start as a PA until you end up being a director—was a complete fallacy. That’s not how it works at all. You either have to take the chance now or never.

1. Burning Cane began as a short script written during Youmans’ junior year of high school. After financing principal photography with savings and crowdfunding, he contacted Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin for assistance turning it into a feature.

2. Youmans’ previous directorial projects include Nairobi (2019), a short film made with Saint Heron—Solange Knowles’ creative agency—about a West African family’s immigration to New York.

close to ARRAY—Ava DuVernay’s

Youmans' next feature-length project will focus on the New Orleans chapter of the Black Panthers in the 1970s.

“I felt like that idea of having to climb up the ladder was a complete fallacy. You either have to take the chance now or never.”

Your approach to Burning Cane was informed by watching your own family navigate religion. What was it like translating that into a visual project? Did you find it cathartic?
Definitely. The making of it was cathartic, but bringing it out to the world was another cathartic experience. I was forced not only to have that conversation with myself but also to confront my family in a very public way. Talking about this kind of stuff openly—talking about issues that for so long I just kept within and contained among my family—has brought us closer. In making this film, it definitely forced me to confront how and why people believe the things they do and why I’m in no position to judge.

I totally understand why it’s important to believe, to have that emotional refuge, to have emotional solace when you don’t know what lies beyond or if you can’t find meaning. When I was younger, I was much more gung ho, much more of a jerk and an asshole [about religion]. It’s just [a matter of] being more nuanced with the idea, more honest and more empathetic to why these things are important for people, whether I believe in them or not. I also had another realization: Kobe [Bryant]’s death really affected me. It forced us to confront our own mortality in a way, and it made me question, am I a religious person? No, not at all. Am I a Christian in a traditional sense? No, but I don’t want to be definitive about something that I’m not sure about. I don’t want to believe in oblivion.

It’s interesting to hear you say you used to be “a jerk” about religion. With Burning Cane, you were compassionate but critical. Was that challenging?
I wouldn’t say it was challenging. I was aware of the process the entire way—of making sure that it felt authentic and like an invitation. But it’s also easy because I grew up in it. It’s easy to detect what felt like going too far, what felt like it was insincere. That was an important thing that I had to gauge constantly because the moment something moves into caricature or parody, then it’s a completely different piece. It’s a damnation or judgment and that’s not what the film’s about at all.

In unpacking religion—even outside of what it represents—it was important for me on a very fundamental level to recognize that despite all the love that you can find in some of the relationships you can build in that space, there is a lot of darkness that needs to be uprooted. Especially in terms of the antiquated, traditionalist, homophobic values. It’s impossible to deny the fact that they’re perpetuated in that space. It would be completely counterproductive to not recognize that that’s part of the equation.

So much of pop and internet culture is created by teenagers, particularly black teenagers. Do you feel like people aren’t giving young people due credit when they express surprise at the maturity of your film?
At least from my perspective, I didn’t feel like I had to draw from anything otherworldly. It didn’t feel like anything foreign. I was fully aware of my age from the moment that we were making the project. All of my friends knew that people took us less seriously in production because we were younger, but we used that to our advantage. We got so many things for free and received so much help from the community because people just wanted to help us make a project.

It’s early days, but do you ever think about your legacy?
I want people to know that my intentions, at least for us and our stories, were always in the right place. As an artist, I try to create in the most selfless context possible all the time. I really do feel the weight of cultural responsibility, but I take that weight on in stride and in appreciation. Recently, I started to think about the responsibility that we have as artists and as artists of color. It’s a responsibility that is not a burden in any way. It really is an honor.

Burning Cane was a representation of a cautionary, bleak perspective that I had grown up with and the conversations that I was having, but it is not indicative of the future or of the stories that I want to continue to tell. It was almost like emotional shedding. I felt like I had to get out of me. But I don’t want my narrative or even my voice as an artist to be defined by such bleakness when there is so much beauty everywhere, especially in our experiences as black people.

You are reading a complimentary story from Issue 36

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