Tribeca’s Youngest Award Winning Director is Giving Black Heritage a Voice: A Conversation with Phillip Youmans

Philip Youmans

Who is Phillip Youmans? If you asked him he’d tell you he’s, “just a dude from the seventh ward of NOLA who wants to make honest, nuanced black stories.” But after having talked with the young filmmaker, I can tell you he’s much more than that. At 19 he is the youngest filmmaker to ever premier at Tribeca Film Festival, and the first black filmmaker to win the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature, and is even featured in the forward to the festival, written by Jane Rosenthal. His name continues to come up in press circuits, programming talks, and has been featured in the New York Times, The Daily Beast, People and now, Blush. And yet, at the heart of it all, Youmans remains a humble student like the majority of our readers.

A typical day for Youmans involves:

Morning: scrambling to finish homework for the day ahead (a very relatable scenario for most students)

Midday: A full day of classes or doing post production or color on a piece he’s working on for Saint Heron (a creative agency founded by Solange Knowles).

Evening: Attempting to maintain some form of a social life (#meaf).

Night: Staying up and editing into the ungodly hours of the night.

And though Youmans has settled into the crazy pace of his life in New York, he attributes his voice as an artist and success holistically to his hometown, New Orleans, Louisiana, or NOLA. His journey as a filmmaker actually started out on the other side of the camera. Youmans first realized his interest in filmmaking on set as Kid in the 2015 comedy, American Hero. It’s there that Youmans says, “I realized that I was way more interested in the kind of discussions that the [director of photography], the director and the crew were having than any of the stuff that [my cast members and I] were talking about in my one or two scenes. I stepped away from that with a newfound appreciation of what goes on behind the camera.”  Shortly after that he began writing short films and casting his friends in them as most beginning filmmakers do, from there that his short, “The Glory,” would give birth to award-winning, The Burning Cane.

Still from Burning Cane

“I wasn’t thinking rationally but I’m happy that I wasn’t. You know none of it really ever made any sense, none of it ever seemed practical, but I was having the time of my life.”

Making a zero budget feature at 17 years old is a hard feat, but with a powerful story, great mentors, charitable resources, and a near reckless amount of tenacity, Youmans was able to complete filming for Burning Cane in a single summer. On taking on the project at such a young age Youmans says, “I wasn’t thinking rationally but I’m happy that I wasn’t. You know none of it really ever made any sense, none of it ever seemed practical, but I was having the time of my life.” His idea was simply to go big or stay at home, setting himself apart as a filmmaker. “A part of me knew that is I could pull this off it could be something extraordinary. If I could make this something that at least I dug that that would feel like an achievement if only on a personal level.”

Pulling off a film of this caliber takes the help of a few amazing friends which Youmans takes great care to credit every step of the way. He credits his instructor Isacc Webb for being “the most formidable and inspirational [influence in his] life period,” and the first to push Burning Cane into becoming a feature length film. “It’s so rooted in character, and it doesn’t involve any special effects, and the locations are limited enough that it was as financially feasible a feature to shoot as I could’ve possibly come up. And the opportunity to work with Wendell [Pierce] cemented my decision to move forward.”

Still from Burning Cane

His inspiration is largely based on his southern beginnings. Similarly, his executive producer and lead actor Pierce, current collaborator, Knowles, and future film subject, Jon Batiste, all hail from the city of blues. NOLA has had a big moment at the festival this year and it’s becoming apparent that many of the next generation of creative movers and shakers have ties to the city. “New Orleans is in everything; it’s the dopest place.” However, the filmmaker is firm and satisfied in his decision to the sleepless city to pursue his education. “New Orleans is such a different place. I love it, but I think I had to get away to really appreciate it. Towards the end of high school you’re usually ready to leave where you’re from, and I was ready to leave even though new Orleans had given me so much. I was ready for something new. I never really got to travel that much when I was a kid because I would put any money that I saved up into my projects. And it’s working out now because it looks like I’m going to be able to travel with the film as it goes to different festivals. So much of my artistic identity is defined by my experiences back home. But I feel like I need to see the world to grow and for my perspective to grow. I think at that point I’ll have an even greater appreciation for back home.

My upbringing in the southern baptist church and the stories my mother told me from the SBC in her upbringing in Lowcountry south Carolina. She grew up in Hampton wich is about an hour east of Augusta or so. There’s a parallel of ethos, whether you are an SB living in SC or rural Louisiana. There’s a sort of dynamic that’s similar across.” Burning Cane discusses some of those parallels, and brings into question both religious cultural experiences. When asked what he wants people to take from the film Youmans says, “A big statement I wanted to make with Burning Cane was how potentially destructive it can be when you take biblical doctrine or the mayoral status of say, a preacher, and you take their word as law,” and much of this is made clear towards the end of the film.

Still from Burning Cane

While the film’s subject matter is dark in nature, Youmans understands this and hopes the audience will be able to connect with characters- even the unlikeable ones. “Some of the [aspects] of Burning Cane are bleak. It’s just not comfortable at all. I can’t impose reaction on people but I think it’s very difficult to like some of the people in [the characters’] world, but I didn’t want to completely outcast them either.”

Part of the wild success of Burning Cane and Youmans himself, come from the necessity we have as a culture to hear more diverse stories from artist of color. That necessity is not lost on the young director. “I feel like Burning Cane is coming at a good time because we’re now getting into a space where people want to hear different black stories.” Telling black stories rich in heritage is not a phase for Youmans, but as defining to his career and voice as his hometown of NOLA has been. “I don’t believe that wanting to tell black stories is limiting. It’s honest, it’s real.” As for the future of Youman, there’s no telling how much he will accomplish. “I think if I continue trying to tell these stories as honestly as a possible can then at that point I can live with whatever comes out of it.”

While Youmans story relies heavily on location, heritage, human connection, and a strong work ethic, there are also a few pillars he lives by in story telling and advice he has for his peers:

  • You don’t have to be nervous about referring to yourself as a filmmaker. “I feel like we’re all filmmakers. The camera is the great equalizer. There’s so much I don’t know about it. I’m still really learning about it every time I go on set.”
  • Write what you know and have confidence in your voice. “The stories that speak to you, tell those stories. At the end of the day, never try to conform in any way that sacrifices your voice.”
  • Remember that filmmaking is an art form and as an artist the road to success will not always be easily laid out in front of you. “You have to understand that there is really nothing practical about filmmaking. Once you fully accept that it’s going to be easier to live on a day to day knowing that this is a gamble, but it’s worth it.”
  • Getting higher education and studying film can be very important, but there is no substitute for the real world experience you gain on a set. “There’s definitely still value in higher education. I think for me it’s about being honest about what will best serve me in my career. Would it be revisiting the fundamentals of film? Right now I don’t feel like that’s the most advantageous thing. I feel like just expanding as an individual and expanding on the things that interest me because there’s so much I don’t know.”
  • And lastly, believe in not only yourself, but your story. “For an artist of any medium, you have to believe that your perspective is important enough for people to want to hear.” So get out there, tell the stories you want to tell with confidence and conviction.
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