The blues is a genre of dichotomies. James Baldwin once wrote that, “in all jazz, and especially in the blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged… Only people who have been ‘down the line’ know what this music is about.” So to some, it may come as a surprise that Burning Cane, the directorial debut of a 19-year-old New Orleanian (shot when he was just 17!), possesses so much of the spirit and impact of classic blues songs.
The story in Burning Cane is told minimalistically, almost like a series of brief vignettes that gradually tell us all we need to know about the film’s central characters. There are three who Youmans’s screenplay threads between. There’s Rev. Pastor Joseph Tillman, (played by The Wire’s Wendell Pierce) a holy man and grieving hypocrite. There’s Daniel Wayne, (Dominique McClellan) an unemployed father who spends his days stewing and drinking at home with this young son (Braelyn Kelly). And then there’s Helen Wayne, (Karen Kaia Livers) the mother and devout Christian who connects the other two storylines, as the beating heart of the film.
Burning Cane really is a movie that lets its performances breathe. As Tillman, Wendell Pierce embodies the machismo that makes so many church leaders so charismatic, but also makes religion seem like a stubborn, paternalistic brick wall. Another facet of the character is his grief for his late wife, a backstory that isn’t exposited on to a great degree yet is strongly felt through the holes of vulnerability Pierce punctures in his character’s armor of bluster.
Karen Kaia Livers and Dominique McClellan get just as much of a chance to shine as Helen and Daniel Wayne, respectively. Burning Cane is fundamentally a film about a mother and son, the distance between them, Helen’s attempts at closing the gap, and Daniel’s steadfast devotion to his delusions and defensiveness. The actors in this family drama are just as engrossing to watch together as they are when they’re separate.
Burning Cane is not a film for the impatient, but at 77 minutes, it probably won’t test yours. It’s not an easy film to write about because it’s so elliptical and visually distinct. Youmans is a native of New Orleans, and he grew up around the pews that Pierce’s Pastor Tillman would preach to, so naturally he’s found a very distinct way to present this southern Baptist ecosystem in cinematic terms.
Burning Cane is a beautiful looking movie that recalls Charles Burnett in several moments. Youmans, working both as director and cinematographer, captures rural New Orleans and Baptist Church interiors in evocative terms. Close-ups and shot-reverse-shot are present here, but characters are just as often cordoned off to segments of the frame to convey the extent of their isolation. Very few plot beats are depicted the way you would expect them to be in a more conventional film, but the care and purpose behind most shots are very obvious upon close inspection.
But it would be negligent for me to praise the look of the film without also uplifting its sounds. Near-silent, rural ambience and the blues are the twin pillars that support Burning Cane’s ever-elusive atmosphere, and I can’t imagine the film’s cadence would be quite as engaging without such a stellar soundtrack. This review is coming up on the same weekend that Kanye West released a gospel album in Jesus Is King, so suddenly everyone’s supposed to have an opinion on gospel music, but its use in Burning Cane is so integral to the movie’s themes that it will make you feel a certain way. Blues and jazz legends Robert Johnson and Mary Lou Williams also make appearances during pivotal scenes.
At nineteen years old, Phillip Youmans has made an authentic drama that a lot of indie directors would still be striving for on their second or third feature. All the creatives behind Burning Cane were working at the top of their level—even with extremely limited means—and their craft is apparent on screen. This is definitely a debut that will have you hyped for what Youmans’s team makes next.
ARRAY Releasing’s Burning Cane is in theaters now and will be streaming on Netflix on November 6, 2019. Find dates and tickets here.