By Anita R. Estell, Esq.
Burning Cane is a provocative and deliciously disturbing film. The film already has received the Tribeca Film Festival’s highest award in addition to enthusiastic reviews in the U.S. and abroad. As a writer and director, nineteen-year-old Philip Youmans (That’s correct. Only 19 years old!) firmly establishes himself as an old soul with a prophetic voice.
A native of New Orleans, Youmans asserts in an interview that life is not perfectly seen or captured. Thus, his vision for the film mirrors life by embedding organic threads of imperfection across the cinematic texture of the film. Within this context, you will witness astounding rays of light as well as equally astounding depths of darkness – both of which touch the soul.
The writing is both exquisite and unfiltered. The opening monologue provided by Karen Kaia Livers, in her role as Helen Wayne, grabs you by the throat and holds you dangling in a virtual world in anticipation of the next thing: release and an opportunity to breathe again. The narrative develops into a metaphor of a mangy dog and the multiple home-cure treatments that fail to provide relief or remedy. The film’s cadence, as well as the imagery, are reminiscent of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
God (Yes. God.) is a central theme, as is the devil. A small-town church supported by a small-town, back-in-the-day culture serves as a backdrop that both enables offenders and emancipates believers. Youmans, raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, enlists the use of film to expose perversions, vagaries and opportunities for redemption, calling into question the role of the church. Men with alcohol addictions and women with other demons carry the burdens of self-inflicted wounding, finding refuge in a faith that serves as a salve.
Actor-Producer Wendell Pierce delivers a brilliant performance. In the leading role as the church pastor, Reverend Tillman rises and falls as a man of scriptural wisdom and hostage of the now dis-embodied angels of darkness that once mated with the women of the earth and produced the Nephilim. The pastor’s struggles come into sharper focus in a troubling exchange with Helen. During that exchange, he instructs Helen to keep her concerns “inside the family,” and shares a scripture from Ephesians 6:10-1. He instructs her to put on the full armor of God, so that she can take a stand against the devil’s schemes, and explains, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but is against the spiritual evil in the heavenly realms.”
As allegorical stories often unfold, male children are central to the storyline – along with their trials, tribulations, and sacrifice. Actors Dominique McClellan as Daniel Wayne and Braelyn Kelly as Jeremiah Wayne play roles as father and son respectively. Although, there is very little that is healthy or wholesome about this relationship. The two mother figures (Helen and Sherry Bland, played by Emyri Crutchfield) emerge as worshippers, intervenors, executioners, victims and, ultimately (as Matt Fagerholm asserts in his review), as enablers of a patriarchal system that contributes to their demise and that of their children.
The Mount Calvary Church Choir under the directorship of Dianne, played by Erika Woods, provides a rotation of down-home classic spirituals that serve as the musical archives of the Black experience in America. The delivery is authentically humble and pointedly moving.
Burning Cane is delicious in terms of its cinematography, screenplay, and humanization of the Black American experience. It is disturbing in that it exposes secrets, open oozing wounds, festering for generations, which continue to place children and families from every walk of life at risk.
Consistent with passages included in Revelations 12:1-5 that describe a woman (Mother Earth perhaps) in labor, about to give birth, with the devil nearby, waiting to devour her male child as soon as it is born, Tillman sounds an alarm in a sermon that serves as a high-pitched point of the story. He says, “There is someone so perverted…vile…and obsessed with our children that he will do anything in his power to destroy their innocence, ruin their lives … and take their life physically and spiritually, too.” Reverend Tillman , paraphrasing I Peter 5:8, asserts, “He is our adversary that walks around us seeking those he can devour.” In referencing this scripture, the Reverend omits the reference at the beginning of the verse that implores the reader to stay “alert and of sober mind.”
In the spirit of full disclosure, both Pierce and Woods have supported the work of CELIE and our XXTRA Special & Free Platform. We are thankful for their friendship and support and take great pride in applauding their contributions to this film. While I have not met Youmans, this film suggests he must be wise beyond his years. One has to wonder how a man so young can know so much about the depths of unfathomable darkness as well as the light that redeems and heals. Bravo to all.