An establishing shot. Grey smoke rises above the green sugar cane fields, into the blue sky like a tornado cylinder as a symphony of crickets chirp in the humid midday sun. The American South, especially Louisiana, occupies a special spot in American literature and film. The region symbolizes an Americana trope, a character if you will: A bastion of hospitality and old-world morals.
That Americana has always been a white Americana, bowed down to as a religion in itself by a country desperate for the assured and “tranquil” pace of “civility.” But what of the Black southern culture; the Black southern Americana; the idealized pastoral images of those humble and polite holy rollers?
Familiar tropes borne from white stories cede their existence and may as well be extinguished in the hot hazy air of Louisiana, as Helen’s voice, recounting the story of her dog Jojo, bleeds into perceptible range over the image of that green sugar cane field. Burning Cane, the stunning directorial debut from 19-year old filmmaker Phillip Youmans, pleases the eye with an aesthetic sugary sweetness wrapped in a bold abstraction of narrative usually found in the best stalk of Terrence Malick’s work, but used to devastating effect in a film that questions the side-affects of the Black southern religious community in regards to toxic masculinity.
The film opens with Helen offering a parable, describing how her dog Jojo contracted Lice. An older dog, 13 years of age, Helen refuses to visit the vet for fear that they’ll direct her to shoot her beloved companion. She describes the various household and superstitious remedies to treat the infection, but all come to no avail. Though we never see Jojo, Helen’s story acts as a metaphor for the men she’s tried desperately to care for (even when they refuse to care for themselves).
Burning Cane patiently dissects the role of religion within the southern Black community, especially with regards to culpability. Neither Tillman nor Daniel ever confront the type of toxic masculinity driving them to their self-destructive behavior, thereby enabling their violent patterns of domestic abuse. Instead, they hide behind God and the devil.
Youmans offers scenes of both Tillman and Daniel in vignettes, some becoming more and more fractured throughout the film. Youmans’ scenes consciously run unperturbed before he makes a cut, settling his camera in dark rooms where the television’s glow frames his characters. He assuredly waits to cross-cut between shots with varying angles, instead depending on a deep depth of field. He interpolates his scenes, mixing audio from one action over the images of another, with an ease of a veteran. He depends upon dutch angles, offering an unsettling representation of each man’s troubled core. Though these men may have “remedies” to cover their mutual weakness: a fear of loneliness, alcohol and God populate their excuses.
Pastor Tillman’s sermons, for which Wendell Pierce excels at by delivering blistering and cathartic verses, often mirrors the Reverend’s demons. When he swerves down those country roads among the sugar cane fields, sipping liquor from his flask so he’ll forget about his wife — in his mind — the devil hunts, and God protects, keeping him from trouble bound.
Comparatively Daniel, living through unemployment, drinks to the point of vomiting, consuming alcohol through the shambles of his marriage, and “pacifying” his son Jeremiah (Braelyn Kelly) by feeding him the same concoctions. Dominique McClellan gives a breakout performance as the mumbling lethargic drunk who holds the double identity of abuser and mamma’s boy. He discovers the shades of grey between the “angel” to one and devil to the other that many abusers occupy in their ability to gain “sympathy and faith” from one half of the people they know.
All the while, Helen watches on and picks up the broken pieces of both men who judge their self-worth by their ability to control women through violence. She wields God as a guide, in turn leading us through Youmans’ captivating narrative through her voice overs. Much like Tillman’s sermons, her plaintive meditations on God and the devil mirrors the trials she and the men in her life are experiencing. She mirrors their insistence to label human fallibility and moral corruption as a divine battle. Karen Kaia Livers amazes as the quiet and steady Helen, completing an incredible and tight ensemble performance from the cast (an equally astounding feat for a 19-year old director).
If Burning Cane suffers from one shortcoming, it’s the empathetic peaks that are more like soft swells in a hymn. While the cinematic language shatters any expectations attached to a 19-year old filmmaker, the risk of suffocating the audience through such extravagances remains present (and sometimes readily cold). Still, the courage to offer such challenging work with a level of craft that reminds one of a young Terrence Malick, masks such reparable “shortcomings.”
Burning Cane represents a bold introduction for a daring new voice and adeptly and patiently examines a topic often left untouched: toxic masculinity within the culture of the southern Black churches. The only question Youmans leaves unanswered, as his blindingly captivating film sharply swerves to its unnerving end, is the limit of his potential. Though if we’re honest and willingly to chain ourselves as prisoners of the moment, as one considers his work as a director, writer, cinematographer, and editor on Burning Cane, we already know the answer. Youmans’ potential has no limits.