This story is part of The 2020 Project, a Men's Health special project that explores the lives of 20 different 20-year-old men across America. To learn more about the others, go here.
Under overcast skies, on a two-way road through lush, green fields, a BMW swerves out of its lane. In the driver’s seat is a haggard, middle-aged preacher who smokes and sips from a flask as the radio blares details of a woman’s murder. A man of the cloth with the walls closing in.
This is Phillip Youmans’s favorite scene in Burning Cane, a film he wrote and directed over the course of two years, starting while he was still in high school. It stars The Wire alum Wendell Pierce, earned an award as the best narrative feature at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019 (when Youmans was all of 19 years old), and impressed Ava DuVernay enough that her production company, Array, helped distribute the film and bring it to Netflix.
In broad strokes, Burning Cane is about a Black community struggling for purpose and dignity as their church fails to solve the complications of race and poverty. Youmans likes the driving scene because it represents that tension and because of how he filmed it—sitting in the bed of a pickup, shooting backward on a tripod.
Then there’s the coincidence that happened shortly afterward, when local sheriffs temporarily held up production. As Youmans recalls, the manager of the Louisiana plantation they were shooting on had called the cops on Youmans’s crew for trespassing, even though they had requested the proper filming permits. “It was this white dude in, like, a beefed-up sort of truck with huge wheels, Confederate-flag-type shit,” he says. “It was a little scary because he was lying. He clearly just did not like Black people.”
As a director, Youmans says he’s drawn to projects with nuanced, humanizing stories of the Black experience. He appreciates and can name-check all the cinematic greats (from Stanley Kubrick to Spike Lee and Terrence Malick), but like many people of his generation, he is intensely interested in creating a style of his own informed by his personal perspective. “I get most of my inspiration from music and my experiences,” he says. “As I’ve started to develop my own style and become more confident, I’ve started looking less outwardly and more inwardly.”
Gen Z is the first generation to grow up in a time when anybody with a mobile phone and video--editing software like Final Cut Pro can make a movie, and anyone with access to YouTube can distribute it. Youmans’s setup is more advanced, but not by much. The youthful recognition that we are all, for better or worse, easily caught on camera seems to inform the unfiltered tone of his work. Some scenes are shot from the unflattering point of view of a tilted camera that keeps running. (A New York Times critic lauded the effect in praising the “haunting” movie.)
The prohibitively expensive creative tools of generations past have become democratized, which means the future of movies may well be coming from those who now only stream them. Youmans hopes his success will inspire other young filmmakers to tackle bold, ambitious projects while also signaling that everyone should take young voices more seriously. “I’ve learned in a lot of ways that age is just a number,” he says.
YOUMAN'S INSPIRATION to write and direct Burning Cane goes back to his upbringing in the Southern Baptist church, where he saw people following the preacher’s testament, even if it occasionally encouraged shaming or hating others. “I couldn’t get down with any type of shaming of any sort, so that naturally alienated me from it,” he says. “And because of that, I wanted to create a story about the dangers of following that in a very literal, fundamentalist sense.”
But his desire to get behind the camera was motivated by a short stint in front of it. About five years ago, local tax incentives made his hometown of New Orleans a cinematic hot spot. Youmans auditioned for several roles before landing a small part in the 2015 action-comedy American Hero. On set, he loved listening as director Nick Love explained his vision for each scene. “I was tired of auditioning for stuff, not booking stuff,” he says. “I felt like becoming a filmmaker would definitely put my destiny more in my own hands, because I’d become the content creator.”
Soon after, Youmans picked up his first camera and shot his first real (and now lost-to-time) short, No Illness in Arms, which never gained any major distribution. Unlike Burning Cane, whose plot reflects his mission as a filmmaker, No Illness in Arms was a way to explore his emerging identity. The story centers on a creative recluse dealing with what it’s like to be introverted. “It’s about a kid who is 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.”
As a high schooler at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), he’d already shot short films for local festivals, so he approached one of his instructors, Isaac Webb, about the idea for Burning Cane. Rather than advising Youmans to keep this one small, Webb pushed him to go big. Youmans embraced that. “I was like, ‘No, fucking right. Yeah, 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 are unapologetically themselves, unapologetically prideful in who they are, is an empowering thing for anybody, especially for any young Black kid getting to know them,” he says. Movies should offer that, too.
TO ACTUALLY shoot Burning Cane, Youmans recruited high school friends to serve as crew members and borrowed the school’s semiprofessional-grade filmmaking equipment. To help fund the production, he worked at a beignet stand, where he met a NOCCA alum, the award--winning choreographer and dancer Lula Elzy. When he told her about the movie, she suggested another NOCCA alum, Wendell Pierce, for the lead. In fact, the two were close friends, so Elzy shared the actor’s contact info. Youmans rewrote the script to give Pierce a bigger role. “I sent out this heartfelt email ,” he says. “And he did it. He came down, shot, and knocked it out.”
Most of the film was shot in the summer of 2017, followed by a year of postproduction editing. Youmans worked through the learning curve. “All the days, hours, and minutes mattered,” says Webb, who advised on the project. “Phillip always prioritized his passion.”
In August 2018, during his freshman year at New York University, Youmans submitted Burning Cane to multiple film festivals, including Tribeca. He had to wait a few months to hear the verdict. That email arrived while he was sitting in a psychology class: Tribeca organizers—unaware of his age—wanted to meet with him and Pierce. The publicity helped him land an agent at United Entertainment Group.
In May 2019, Youmans attended the Tribeca awards show, where he was announced as that year’s Founder’s Award winner, making him not only the youngest director in the festival but the first Black director to win the award. “I might have been the first at Tribeca, but I don’t think I’ll be the last,” he says. The film also won for best actor and best cinematography.
Youmans and his team decided to email DuVernay about distributing it, only to find out she was a fan. “I watched Burning Cane and understood what the jury was saluting,” she says. “To grasp and hone a nuanced story with such rigor—at the age of 19? It’s beyond impressive.”
He has since made other films, such as the five-minute short Imagine a Moon Colony, which debuted on Hulu during Black History Month this year. It’s the fictional, documentary-style story of a 16-year-old aspiring filmmaker in 1970 who asks his family to imagine the year 2020. The result is optimistic but honest about healthy relationships and their imperfections. Next up is a feature called Magnolia Bloom, about the formation of a Black Panther chapter in New Orleans in the late ’60s.
“There’s going to be sort of a spiritual continuum,” he says. “You’re going to feel the same voice but see the evolution of it.” We’ll be watching.
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