05.13.2019

19-Year-Old Filmmaker Phillip Youmans

19-year-old Phillip Youmans’ first film “Burning Cane” won three awards at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. He has made history as the youngest director to feature in the festival and the first African American director to win the top prize, and he spoke with Alicia Menendez about his story.

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> AND NOW WE TURN TO A NEW KID ON THE BLOCK, A TEENAGE FILMMAKER JUST STARTING OUT BUT ALREADY MAKING WAYS, 19-YEAR-OLD PHILIP YUMENS.

HE SNAPPED UP THREE AWARDS IN TRIBECCA FILM FESTIVAL.

IT'S SET IN RURAL LOUISIANA AND TELLS THE STORY OF A WOMAN TO RECONCILE HER FAITH WITH THE LOVE SHE HOLDS FOR HER ALCOHOLIC SON AND A TROUBLED PASTOR.

HE'S THE FIRST AFRICAN-AMERICAN DIRECTOR TO WIN THE TOP PRIZE.

ALICIA MENENDEZ SPOKE TO HIM.

TELL US WHAT 'BURNING CANE' IS ABOUT.

SO, 'BURNING KANE' IS ABOUT A MOTHER LIVING IN LOUISIANA, HER SON DANIEL, HER SON JEREMIAH, AND THE PASTOR, THEIR RELATIONSHIPS WITH EACH OTHER, THEIR RELATIONSHIPS WITH THEIR RELIGION, THEIR COMMUNITY, AND HOW THEY ENVIRONMENT AND HOME AFFECTS EVERY ASPECT IN THE FABRIC OF THEIR LIVES.

IT'S ABOUT HOW RELIGION SORT OF GOVERNS THEIR COMMUNITY.

IT'S ABOUT THE CYCLICAL NATURE OF BEHAVIOR AND HOW VICES ARE PASSED DOWN IN LINEAGE VERY OFTEN.

AND IT'S ALSO ABOUT THE DANGERS OF ENACTING A FUNDAMENTALIST INTERPRETATION OF RELIGION AND IN TAKING RELIGIOUS DOCTRINE LITERALLY.

WHAT IS THE MEANING BEHIND THE TITLE OF THE FILM?

'BURNING KANE' IS PART OF HARV HARVESTING CANE.

SUGAR CANE.

SUGAR CANE.

BUT IT ALSO RELEASES TOXINS THAT R NEGATIVE FOR PEOPLES' HEALTH.

I THINK THERE'S JUST AN INTERESTING SORT OF DICHOTOMY THERE IN THAT IT IS SUCH AN IMPORTANT PART OF THEIR ECONOMY.

AND SUGAR CANE IN THAT INDUSTRY IS IMPORTANT PART OF THE CULTURE AND THE FABRIC OF THAT AREA.

BUT IT IS ALSO DETRIMENTAL TO THEIR HEALTH IN TERMS OF THE TOXINS RELEASED IN THE AIR BECAUSE OF IT.

SO, I FEEL LIKE THAT SORT OF TOUCHES ON, YOU KNOW, THE SORT OF MULTIDIMENSIONALITY OF ALL THE CHARACTERS THAT KIND OF POPULATE THE FILM.

YOU FINISHED THIS FILM DURING YOUR SENIOR YEAR OF HIGH SCHOOL, 17 YEARS OLD.

TELL ME ABOUT THE PROCESS OF MAKING THIS FILL.

SO, IT STARTED WHEN I WAS 16 IN THE DECEMBER OF MY JUNIOR YEAR OF HIGH SCHOOL.

I WROTE A SHORT SCRIPT CALLED 'THE GLORY' AND I WANTED TO MAKE THAT SHORT BUT I STEPPED AWAY TO MAKE ANOTHER SHORT.

AFTER THAT MY INSTRUCTOR AT THE NEW ORLEANS CENTER FOR CREATIVE ARTS TOLD ME HE FELT THE FILM HAD POTENTIAL, THE FACT IT WAS GROUNDED IN CHARACTER, THAT IT COULD BE MADE FEEZ BLI.

AND SO I JUST BECAME OBSESSED WITH THAT IDEA.

AND THEN IN THE ENSUING WEEKS AND MONTHS I WAS JUST CHURNING OUT DRAFTS OF THE FEATURE LENGTH SCRIPT, GOING THROUGH SCRIPT REVISIONS, MEETING WITH ACTORS ALL THE WHILE RAISING MONEY AND CASTING.

SO, IN THAT SUMMER BEFORE MY SENIOR YEAR, WE WENT INTO PRODUCTION AND SHOT THE PRINTS FOR PHOTOGRAPHY AND SHOT WINDAL'S PIECE IN AUGUST.

FOR SOMEONE WHO DOESN'T GO TO AN ELITE SCHOOL LIKE THE ONE YOU WENT TO, HOW DO YOU MAKE A FILM LIKE THIS?

I THINK AT MY AGE WHEN WE MADE THIS FILM I RELIED SO MUCH ON THE FACT THAT THE ARTISTS THAT WERE MY FRIENDS AND A LOT OF MY FRIENDS WHO WEREN'T ARTISTS WERE JUST REALLY BEHIND MY MISSION AND MY DRIVE.

AND WHEN YOU CAN'T PAY PEOPLE INDUSTRY GREAT, ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU'RE THAT YOUNG, YOU HAVE TO RELY ON PEOPLE WANTING TO WORK FOR YOU REGARDLESS OR WANTING TO WORK WITH YOU BECAUSE THEY BELIEVE IN YOU AND BELIEVE IN THE PROJECT.

FOR ME IN THAT CASE, THOSE ARE MY FRIENDS.

I'VE BEEN TELLING PEOPLE RECENTLY THAT I FEEL LIKE IF YOU'RE AS YOUNG AS I WAS MAKING A FILM, YOU HAVE TO RELY I DON'T KNOW OUR FRIENDS AND COMMUNITY IN A WAY TO BAND TOGETHER AND HELP YOU FIGURE OUT RESOURCES AND JOBS.

YOU'VE SAID I THINK NOW IS PROBABLY THE BEST TIME FOR 'BURNING CANE' TO COME OUT.

WHY NOW?

WELL, THERE'S -- THERE'S TWO PARTS OF THAT.

I THINK THAT JUST -- I THINK IT'S TIME FOR US TO KIND OF TAKE AN OBJECTIVE LOOK JUST AT RELIGION AND ITS ROLE IN OUR COMMUNITY AND HOW IT PLAYS INTO OUR ADVANCEMENT AS A COMMUNITY.

AND I ALSO THINK IN TERMS OF MAKING THIS, YOU KNOW, IN MORE APPLICABLE SENSE, I HAD TO MAKE THE FILM THEN AND NOW BECAUSE OF THE FACT THAT THERE WAS SUCH A COMMUNITY AROUND ME THAT THERE WAS NO OTHER TIME THAT I WAS GOING TO BE ABLE TO RELY ON PEOPLES' GOOD WILL LIKE I COULD THEN.

THE MOMENT YOU TURN 18, THEN YOU'RE AN ADULT AND PEOPLE EXPECT AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT THING.

WHEN I WAS 18 WE WERE IN POST-PRODUCTION.

BUT WHEN I WAS 17, I THINK WE WERE AWARE OF THE FACT THAT PEOPLE THOUGHT WE WERE JUST A STUDENT PRODUCTION.

AND IN THAT, THEY'RE WILLING TO GIVE SO MUCH BECAUSE THEY THOUGHT THEY WERE JUST HELPING OUT SOME KIDS.

AND WE WERE YOUNG, BUT WE ALWAYS ENVISIONED THIS GOING FARTHER THAN JUST A STUDENT PROJECT.

THERE'S A CLIP I WANT TO WATCH.

IT COMES VERY EARLY IN THE FILM.

AND IT IS WINDAL PIERCE GIVING HIS FIRST SERMON WE SEE IN THE FILM.

HOWEVER SINCE HE HAS DIED, HE HAS LEARNED THAT IS NOT TO BE TRUE.

THAT'S NOT TRUE, HE WHO DIES WITH THE MOST TOYS WINS.

YOU CAN GO OUT THERE AND TRY TO GET A PRETTY DRESS, BUT IT DON'T MEAN NOTHING IF YOU YOU'RE GOING TO LOSE YOUR SOUL.

HE WHO DIES WITH THE MOST TOYS.

HE KNOWS THAT'S NOT TO BE TRUE BECAUSE WHEN HE DIED HE BETTER HAVE GOOD RELATIONSHIPS BECAUSE THAT DIDN'T GET HIM ACROSS JORDAN INTO HEAVEN.

AMEN.

NO TOYS GET YOU INTO HEAVEN.

AMEN.

IT'S THE FRIENDSHIPS THAT YOU HAVE, IT'S THE KINDNESS YOU DO.

DID YOU CLOTHE ME WHEN I WAS NAKED?

DID YOU GIVE ME HOUSING WHEN I HAD NO PLACE TO LIVE?

DID YOU GIVE ME WATER TO DRINK WHEN I WAS THIRSTY?

HE WHO DIES WITH THE MOST TOYS WINS.

WHAT GOOD IS IT FOR A MAN TO GAIN THE WHOLE WORLD BUT LOSE HIS SOUL?

TALK TO ME ABOUT THE DICHOTOMY OF CUTTING BETWEEN THIS SERMON AND THEN THIS MAN RECKONING WITH HIS OWN DEMONS.

THERE'S SOME TRUTH TO WHAT TILLMAN SAYS IN THAT SERMON IN THAT HE BELIEVES FRIENDSHIPS AND PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS ARE MORE VALUABLE THAN MATERIAL POSSESSIONS.

MOST OF US CAN AGREE WITH THAT.

I WANTED TO SHOW THERE CAN BE TRUTH THAT COMES FROM THIS MAN, AND HE CAN ALSO STILL BE BROKEN.

HE CAN STILL BE A BEACON BUT STILL GRAPPLING WITH DEMONS ON HIS OWN.

IT BRINGS THE QUESTION OF WHETHER OR NOT WE SHOULD BE FOLLOWING ANYBODY WHO CAN'T REALLY PRACTICE WHAT THEY PREACH.

SHOULD WE EVEN EXPECT FIN HAD TO BE ABLE TO DO THAT?

THAT'S A WHOLE OTHER QUESTION.

HOW DID YOU CONVINCE WINDAL PIERCE TO BE A PART OF OF THIS FILM?

SO, IN THE MONTHS LEADING UP TO PREPRODUCTION -- WELL, IN THE MONTHS LEADING UP TO PRODUCTION ACTUALLY I WAS WORKING AT MORNING CALL COFFEE SAND AND I WAS WAITING A WOMAN WHO WAS AN ALUMNI OF THE SAME HIGH SCHOOL WINDAL AND I WENT TO, NEW ORLEANS CENTRE FOR CREATIVE ARTS.

I WENT UP TO MISS ELSI.

SHE ASKED ME WHAT I WANTED TO DO.

I WAS TALKING TO HER ABOUT THE ROLES IN THE PROJECT, WE HAD CAST EVERY ROLE EXCEPT THIS PREACHER.

I WAS JUST EXPLAINING THE PREACHER'S MOTIVATION, WHERE HE WAS IN HIS LIFE.

SHE SAID WHAT DO YOU THINK OF WINDAL PIERCE PLAYING THE ROLE?

I FREAKED OUT.

HE'S BIG IN OUR COMMUNITY, NOT ONLY BECAUSE HE'S A BRILLIANT ACTOR BUT BECAUSE OF THE WORK HE'S DONE IN THE PARK WHERE HE GREW UP.

SHE TEXTED HIM RIGHT IN THAT MOMENT AND THEN HE RESPONDED TO HER QUICKLY.

I THINK SHE SAID THERE'S A STUDENT SHOOTING A FEATURE FILM THIS SUMMER.

HE'S INTERESTED IN SEEING YOU PLAY THIS ROLE.

THEN AFTER THAT IT WAS BACK AND FORTH MAKING DATES WORK.

BUT WINDAL COMING IN, IT HELPED EXPAND THE COMMUNITY BECAUSE INITIALLY THE FILM WAS SO MUCH MORE CENTERED ON DANIEL AND HELEN'S RELATIONSHIP AS A MOTHER AND SON.

WHAT WINDAL CAME IN AND ALLOWED WAS BUILT THE ENTIRE PORTRAIT OF THE COMMUNITY AND SHOWED HOW HELEN'S RELIGION AND THE PEOPLE SHE ASSOCIATES WITH HER RELIGION HOW THEY AFFECT HER ACTIONS WITH HER LOVED ONES AND FAMILY.

IT ALLOWED THE ENTIRE STORY TO BE FLESHED OUT.

HOW DID WORKING WITH WINDELL CHANGE YOU AS A DIRECTOR?

I THINK BEFORE WORKING WITH WINDELL AND BEFORE 'BURNING CANE' I HAD A MESSED UP IDEA OF WHAT DIRECTING WAS.

WHAT DID YOU THINK IT WAS?

I THOUGHT IT WAS SO MUCH MORE COMMANDING, MORE AUTHORITARIAN THAT IT IS AND SHOULD BE.

IT'S MORE ABOUT THE CONVERSATIONS YOU HAVE.

SOMETIMES EVEN THE CONVERSATIONS YOU HAVE BEFORE YOU SHOW UP TO SET.

I THINK WHAT WINDELL AND DOMINIQUE TAUGHT ME IS THEY'RE BRILLIANT ACTORS AND YOU HAVE TO GIVE BRILLIANT ACTORS SPACE TO CREATE ALONG SOOIIDE YOU.

IT WAS A BACK AND FORTH DIALOGUE.

HE MADE GREAT CHOICES.

IT WORKED OUT.

THIS IS NOT THE ONLY CHARACTER IN THE FILM THAT STRUGGLES WITH ADDICTION.

LET'S TAKE AT ANOTHER CLIP.

♪ ♪ ♪

THE MAIN CHARACTER, THIS IS HER SON DANCING AROUND WITH HIS SON, PASSES THE LITTLE BOY A BOTTLE.

TALK TO ME ABOUT ADDICTION.

SO, ADDICTION RUNS IN THE FAMILY.

ALCOHOLISM IS PROBABLY THE MOST PREVALENT EXAMPLE OF THAT.

AND BEFORE I MADE 'BURNING CANE' ACTUALLY IT WAS WHEN I WAS 17 IN MY JUNIOR YEAR I KIND OF HAD A LITTLE SPOUT OF ALCOHOLISM MYSELF BECAUSE I WAS ALWAYS ABLE TO GROW A BEARD PRETTY EASILY.

SO, I WOULD GO UP TO DISCOUNT STORES IN THE CITY IN THE 7th WARD AND GET ALCOHOL BECAUSE THEY DIDN'T ID ME BECAUSE I LOOKED OLDER.

I WAS REALLY KIND OF SELF-MEDICATING BECAUSE I WAS AT A LOW POINT THEN.

I WAS INSECURE, JEALOUS, AND REALLY KIND OF SABOTAGING THE RELATIONSHIP THAT I WAS IN.

AND THEN IT WASN'T MAKING THINGS ANY BETTER WHEN THE GIRL THAT I WAS DATING AT THE TIME, SHE WAS ALSO DEALING WITH SOME SORT OF ALCOHOLISM WITH HER OWN FAMILY AND HER OWN FATHER.

YOU KNOW, SO IT WAS JUST KIND OF A TOXIC CYCLE IN THAT.

AND I RECOGNIZE THAT IT WAS SELF-MEDICATING AND MY MOTHER CAUGHT ME A FEW TIMES.

THAT'S WHY SHE TOLD ME TO SHAVE THE BEARD.

AFTER THAT, I STOPPED DRINKING AS MUCH.

I STAYED AWAY FROM HARD LIQUOR.

SO, I JUST KIND OF HAD MY OWN PERSONAL EXPERIENCES WITH SOME OF THE JEALOUSY AND INSECURITY AND ALCOHOLISM THAT DANIEL FINDS HIMSELF WITH.

ALBEIT DANIEL'S IS MUCH MORE MAGNIFIED AND HAS A MUCH, MUCH, MUCH HARSHER CONTEXT IN TERMS OF HIM BEING AN ADULT AND HAVING TO CARE FOR HIS CHILD AND ALL OF THAT.

BUT WHAT I WANTED TO REALLY TOUCH ON WITH DANIEL AND JEREMIAH'S RELATIONSHIP IN THAT SPHERE OF ALCOHOLISM IS THE FACT THAT THINGS CAN BE PASSED ON SO EASILY.

THAT'S ANOTHER THING THAT'S SORT OF CYCLICAL, THE CYCLICAL NATURE OF VICES AND HOW THEY'RE PASSED ON FROM GENERATION TO GENERATION.

THAT'S SOMETHING THAT'S PRESENT IN THE MOVIE NOT ONLY IN ALCOHOLISM BUT IN SMOKING.

IT'S -- WHEN IT'S ROUTINE, WHEN IT'S NORMALIZED, IT'S SO EASY TO LET THAT BECOME A PART OF YOUR ROUTINE.

AND I DEFINITELY WANTED TO TOUCH ON THAT WITH 'BURNING CANE' AND DANIEL AND JEREMIAH'S RELATIONSHIP.

THE MOTHER, HELEN, ONE OF THE MORE COMPLEX AND DYNAMIC CHARACTERS IN THIS FILM.

IT WAS MR. MARK WHO HELPED ME GET BACK UP AND BY THE GRACE OF GOD I COULD WALK AWAY.

I WAS SCARED I WAS GOING TO HAVE FOB TO BE IN A WHEELCHAIR.

BUT YOU KNOW, WITH THE HELP OF THE LORD, I'LL BE FINE AND I'LL SURVIVE.

THAT'S GREAT, MAMA.

I'M GLAD TO SEE THAT YOU'RE DOING OKAY.

EAT.

YOU'VE SAID WINDELL IS OUR LEAD MALE CHARACTER BUT THE STORY REVOLVES AROUND HELEN AND HER DECISIONS, HER EXPERIENCES DEFINE 'BURNING CANE.'

HOW SO?

SO, HELEN IS THE CHARACTER IN 'BURNING CANE' THAT HAS THE MAJOR DRAMATIC QUESTION, THAT REALLY HAS THE MAJOR DECISION TO MAKE.

WHICH IS?

THIS IS HOW DOES SHE PROCEED WITH KNOWING THE MAN THAT HER SON HAS BECOME.

AND HOW DOES SHE FEEL AS A MOTHER, IS THERE ANY GUILT THAT SHE FEELS FOR HOW HE'S TURNED OUT?

AND IT'S ALSO HOW DOES SHE RESPOND?

WHAT ACTION DOES SHE TAKE TO WHAT HE'S DONE?

WHICH IS NOT JUST HIS GRAPPLING WITH HIS ADDICTION BUT ALSO WITH DOMESTIC VIOLENCE?

YES, YES.

AND WHAT I WANTED TO SPEAK ON ESPECIALLY WITH EL HADDEN IS THAT THERE IS DANGER IN ENACTING A FUNDAMENTALIST INTERPRETATION OF RELIGION.

AND THAT BY THE END OF THE FILM, SHE TAKES TILLMAN'S WORDS AND HIS GUIDANCE LITERALLY.

AND IN THAT, IN THAT VERY FUNDAMENTALIST INTERPRETATION, SHE TAKES ACTION FROM THAT.

BUT HER MAJOR QUESTION IS HOW DOES SHE HELP THE PEOPLE AND THE MEN IN HER LIFE REALLY THAT SHE LOVES, A PASTOR, HER GRANDSON, AND HER SON, DANIEL.

YOU'VE SAID MY ARTISTIC IDENTITY IS DEFINED BY HUMANIZING MORE THAN IT IS BY MY BLACKNESS.

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

SO, I AM -- I WANT TO TELL HONEST NUANCED BLACK STORIES.

YOU KNOW, THERE'S A CENT RICHL THAT'S GOING TO BE PART OF MY WORK.

I THINK NOT EVEN ABOVE ALL THAT, BUT IN KIND OF IN TANDEM WITH THAT IS SHOW CASING THE DUALITY AND NUANCE OF OUR EXPERIENCE.

I THINK THERE'S SOMETHING IMPORTANT ABOUT US AS BLACK PEOPLE BEING ABLE TO TELL OUR STORIES AND BE ABLE TO SHOW OURSELVES IN THAT FALLIBLE LIGHT.

BUT I THINK IT HAS TO BE TOLD FROM A BLACK PERSPECTIVE TO MAKE SURE THE HUMANIZING ELEMENT IS STILL THERE.

THANK YOU SO MUCH.

THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Eric Schmidt and Alan Eagle about privacy, democracy and the spread of extremism on the internet. She also speaks with actor Glenda Jackson about her role in “King Lear” on Broadway. Alicia Menendez speaks with filmmaker Phillip Youmans about “Burning Cane,” the 19-year-old’s first film that won three awards at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

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