Phillip Youmans, age 19, sits in a chic downtown Manhattan restaurant drinking coffee. As recently as a year ago, when he was just another NYU undergrad, he might very well have walked by and gotten a glimpse of a tableau like this from the outside-in. That sort of thing has been happening a lot lately – finding himself on the other side of a scene he’s witnessed over and over again.
Youmans has come directly from the airport, having just returned from the New Orleans film festival, where his debut feature Burning Cane landed a plum showing at the Orpheum Theater. The Crescent City native has a specific memory to go with this one: “I remember going to see A Ciambra, Jonas Carpignano’s movie about the Romani people in Italy, at the Orpheum a couple years ago. I never imagined I’d play there one day. I couldn’t have.”
Life has gotten very surreal very quickly for Youmans, who went from another teenager with big dreams to a bona fide artist, becoming the first black director to win the best US narrative feature award at the Tribeca film festival before nabbing a distribution deal from Ava DuVernay’s company. His story, that of a resourceful and determined kid going full DIY to accomplish something plenty of adults spend their entire lives trying to complete, has an instant boy-wonder hook. But beyond all the precocity, beyond his narrative, beyond the satisfying uncanniness of getting VIP treatment at places he once paid to enter, there’s a movie. And it’s a shockingly good one.
Youmans drew on his experiences growing up in Louisiana and its Baptist churches for the worshipful yet critical Burning Cane. It paints a portrait of the struggles of those attending a sweltering service every Sunday in the deep south, focusing on a mother concerned for her son and his burgeoning drinking problem. The poetic look at all that this corner of Christianity has to offer – solidarity and strength, though not without prejudice and reactionary thinking – began as a short when he was only 16, though he just used that as a concept for the full-length project in his head. “I’d decided that this was what I wanted to do,” Youmans says, “so I just had tunnel vision. I had to make this happen.”
So he did, though, of course, that was much easier said than done. The biggest hurdle standing between most first-timers and the realization of their vision has always been money, and that was no different in Youmans’ case. He cobbled together a budget by taking a little here and a little there. “I put all of my savings into the film, which was around twenty-five hundred bucks,” he recalls. “I cashed out a lot of savings bonds that I’d gotten from family members. I was working at a beignet stand in City Park that’s no longer in operation now; it turned into another Café du Monde. It was quick, and a lot of cash for a high school job. I was stacking that up in the months leading to principal photography, and then me and my producer Mose Mayer started an Indiegogo. Started pooling from my family, some of Mose’s family donated a bit too, and that was enough to get us through production. We never had extra funds. There was a lot of stuff we needed to get for free.”
The generosity of kindred Louisiana locals, admiring the gumption and ambition of Youmans’ crackerjack operation, took him far. (“People take care of each other around New Orleans,” he says.) The jack-of-all-trades spent most of what he had on locations, from a Thibodaux sugar plantation complete with standing slaves’ quarters to the Mount Sinai Baptist church in Algiers, but shot in many places for free. He found collaborators in friends, family, family friends and friends’ families. Everything started to get real when he landed Wendell Pierce, a TV veteran and the most well-known name in the cast, through a favor from a stranger.
“I was waiting on a woman named Lula one day at the beignet stand, and she’d gone to Nocca (New Orleans Center for Creative Arts) too,” Youmans explains. “I got to chatting with her, she asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and I told her about the film. I was saying that I’d cast every role except the pastor, because we had been looking at one actor whose schedule didn’t really work, and she said that she knew Wendell. When she brought him up, I was shocked, because I didn’t think his echelon of talent and success was one I was even allowed to approach. But she said he was cool, and she texted him right there and he gave me his email. I sent him the script, then immediately emailed again and told him not to read it, so I could expand his role.”
He had the advantage of attending classes part-time at Nocca, a well-regarded arts school for those students demonstrating promise at a young age. “To be completely transparent, I did a lot of this during class,” Youmans laughs. “I went to two high schools, doing a half-day program; I’d leave Ben Franklin and then do the rest of my day at Nocca. I got so much done at Franklin while I was supposed to be paying attention. My grades suffered some, and in my junior year too. But it really does feel like it’s the easiest to concentrate on something when you should be concentrating on something else!”
The final piece of the puzzle was Benh Zeitlin, Sundance darling and the director of 2012’s Oscar-nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild. Youmans threw a Hail Mary and sent Zeitlin an out-of-the-blue direct message via Instagram, having found an account mentioning the film-maker’s production company in its bio. To his surprise, Zeitlin wrote back expressing great interest in helping out and scaling up, and went on to become a “mentor”, as Youmans puts it.
“He gave a lot of face time, sitting through the edit, helping me along. For a director to do that, while at the same time working on his own movie, that meant the world. That would’ve been enough, and then he also advocated for us to get this grant that changed everything. We got a cash award from CreateLouisiana, but the biggest thing that came with that was editing space at Second Line Stages, and color-correction as well as photochemical work … This was the next level.”
With Zeitlin’s assistance, he was able to wrap up a cut in time for submission to the Tribeca Film Festival. During one morning’s psychology class, he snuck a peek at his emails to find the director of programming asking if they could host his world premiere. “I just thought, ‘Holy fucking shit’,” he remembers. “I went to the bathroom, called three people, came back to class frozen. I kept refreshing my phone, making sure it was real. After that, I left class walking blindly, nowhere in particular.”
He bagged the best narrative feature prize and Pierce earned best actor, identifying their film as the runaway success of the festival. Ava DuVernay’s company Array took notice and offered Youmans a deal he could feel good about. “I thought they were an interesting distributor, seriously dedicated to promoting black voices and female film-makers. They put that front and center, and this is unapologetically a southern black story, so Array was the perfect home for it. And, I’d add to that, Ava’s a real one.”
Youmans went on to enroll in NYU’s famed film program as his film made the rounds on the festival circuit, but as the whirlwind picked up, he decided to take a semester off. Now, he’s thinking he’ll probably join the esteemed ranks of such Tisch dropouts as Paul Thomas Anderson and John Waters instead of finishing up the four-year degree. He’s already made plans for his next feature, a movie about the Black Panther chapter in New Orleans during 1978 that will be well-funded enough to capitalize on Louisiana’s generous tax break programs. Why bother preparing for a career he’s already started?
He’s not concerned about the reputation of a wunderkind weighing him down as he moves forward; if the novelty of his youth brings more attention to his work, no objections there. One gets the sense he’ll have a long career over which to prove that he deserves his place in the business. He’s on the inside of the industry he’s spent the entirety of his brief life gazing at, and he’s not going anywhere. “I want to make a movie, then another movie, then another movie, then hopefully another movie, and then after that, another movie,” he laughs. “That’s the plan.”