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Burning Cane-Debut Feature By Black Teen Director now on Netflix and select screens

Dwight Casimere | 11/8/2019, 4:03 p.m.
History was made at the 18th Tribeca Film Festival. 'Burning Cane', the debut feature narrative by then 19 year old ...

We then meet Jeremiah the luminous wandering sprite of a young boy with hopeful eyes, played brilliantly by Braelyn Kelly. He is like a latter day Candide wandering through the cane fields and orange groves of his rural Louisiana Parish with eyes of wonder. Youman's unflinching camera captures every nuance of the grim life that he faces within the confines of his tiny railroad car of a home. He's trapped into living with an unemployed alcoholic father who commands him to drain out the dregs of wasted beer cans as respite from his endless watching of old cartoons and coloring books. We see his father crushing the beer cans with pent up anger. Then follows a scene of the two dancing as they take alternate swigs of whiskey, swaying to an old blues tune on the phonograph (Robert Johnson's They're Red Hot). The dance is at once endearing and disturbing.

Along the way, we meet Daniel's common-law wife and Jeremiah's mother, Sherry (Emyri Crutchfield), Sherry’s admonitions that Daniel find job are met with violence that only escalates with Daniel's drinking.

Braelyn Kelly

Braelyn Kelly

Phillip Youmans

Phillip Youmans

There are further taboos only hinted at in the briefest suggestions of homophobia, spousal abuse and, the ultimate taboo in the black community, honor killing. These all fall under the category of "the name that I shall not speak," in Rev. Tillman's final admonitions on the evil subterfuges of the devil, "He will use your family, your friends, your neighbors to turn you to his side. He's coming for you, our children, these precious babies.) His booming words border on homophobia. The film moves at a snail's pace, reflective of the life of those who inhabit it. Scenes are punctuated with angelic swells of choral music from the ages (Mary Lou Williams' Black Christ of the Andes from the words of St. Martin de Pores), Old Time Spirituals (Swing Low Sweet Chariot, This Little Light of Mine, and finally, from the very real local Mount Sinai Youth Choir. All of this serves to ground the film in its own reality and bring it on home. Burning Cane is a masterpiece. It is a powerful film that reminds us that the concepts of sin and redemption lie within our own grasp and that none of us is free from the consequence for our actions. Youmans' Burning Cane presents a universal theme that transcends race and class. Its hard to believe that he conceived this film when he was just 16 years old and filmed it when he was 17. The themes, and the way he presents them is mindful of a young William Faulkner, the Nobel Prize laureate author from Oxford, Mississippi. Burning Cane is a masterpiece. Make way for the new generation of great black filmmakers in the person of one Phillip Youmans.

Burning Cane is now streaming on Netflix and on select screens. Check local listings