2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Burning Cane’

April 29, 2019

by Carla Hay

Wendell Pierce  in "Burning Cane"
Wendell Pierce  in “Burning Cane” (Photo by Phillip Youmans)

“Burning Cane”

Directed by Phillip Youmans

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 25, 2019.

Stepping into the emotionally intense world of “Burning Cane” is like being stuck in blistering heat in rural Laurel Valley, Louisiana, where the movie takes place. Things move a little slower, modern conveniences are a little harder to get, and people’s dreams have become a little more tarnished by poverty and hopelessness. In other words, be prepared feel to a lot of discomfort in the atmosphere of people trying to hold on to some dignity as they slog through life’s miseries and cruelties.

The movie opens with Helen Wayne (played by Karen Kaia Liver), a middle-aged mother, listing all the home remedies that she’s tried to get rid of the rashes that her beloved dog JoJo has, but none of the remedies has worked so far. (One of the remedies is sugar cane; hence, the title of the movie.) Helen walks with the kind of world-weary limp that shows she’s carrying a lot of emotional baggage that goes beyond her physical challenges. In a conversation between Helen and her son Daniel (played by Dominique McClellan), we find out that Daniel’s father died of AIDS, but it’s a secret that Daniel finds hard to accept.

It’s not long before we see that Daniel is causing a lot of Helen’s emotional pain. He’s a chronically unemployed alcoholic, and she worries about his well-being and how he’s going to take care of his pre-teen son Jeremiah (played by Braelyn Kelly). Helen isn’t the only one disappointed in Daniel—his wife Sherry Bland (played by E’myri Crutchfield) is becoming increasingly fed-up with him and his inability to financially provide for their family. It’s implied but not shown that when Daniel and Sherry get into arguments, it’s not uncommon for him to hit her.

For many people in the town, the local Baptist church is a symbol of hope and salvation. It’s no wonder that the town’s residents look to the church’s Rev. Pastor Joseph Tillman (played by Wendell Pierce) as their personal savior. His rousing sermons with copious quotes from the Bible serve as beacons of faith in a world that’s often clouded by the murky uncertainties of life.

Pastor Tillman says all the right words to his poverty-stricken congregation. In one sermon, he aims harsh criticism at a famous Malcom Forbes quote: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Pastor Tillman counters that belief by telling his parishioners: “We must invest in love … God is the most important relationship in your life.”

These are words that Helen takes to heart, and it’s clear that she—like many others in the church—have placed Pastor Tillman on a pedestal. Pastor Tillman, who is a lonely widower, is also considered somewhat of a catch to the single ladies in town.

“Burning Cane” writer/director Phillip Youmans (who also the movie’s cinematographer and editor) effectively uses moody cinematography to convey these two worlds: the church is brightly lit and welcoming, while the homes of Helen and Daniel are dark and depressing. (“Burning Cane” is set sometime in the late 1990s/early 2000s, before the proliferation of smartphones, and when people could still reasonably use rotary phones, as the Waynes do in this story.)

Pastor Tillman has a secret that’s become increasingly difficult to hide: He’s an alcoholic with a history of domestic violence. In one scene, he drunkenly confesses that he beat his wife during an argument. In another scene, he pushes a parishioner away when she tries to stop him from driving drunk. When he’s found passed out in his car in a drunken stupor, the only person whom he tells police to call is Helen.

After Helen finds out about Pastor Tillman’s personal demons, she’s somewhat in denial and conflicted over how to handle it. But once Helen sees the cracks of Pastor Tillman’s façade, it triggers a feeling of disillusionment that influences her actions for the rest of the story. By using hand-held cameras and not having a musical score for most of the film, director Youmans infuses a sense of realism, while keeping a fever-dream-like quality to the pacing of the film, where the dialogue sometimes wanders like a rambling poet.

The main criticism that people might have about “Burning Cane,” whose entire cast is African American, is that all the men in the movie are written as disturbed individuals and/or disappointments. Meanwhile, the women are the “responsible” ones who have to clean up the men’s messes. (Even Helen’s late husband, who’s not shown in the movie, was someone who committed domestic violence against her, according to what Helen says in one scene. The only things we hear about her dead husband are negative.) “Burning Cane” would have benefited from having a little more variety in how the men and women were written instead of relying on somewhat offensive clichés of African American men.

However, “Burning Cane” overall is a well-crafted movie when it comes to cinematography and editing—indications that Youmans has a knack for how a story should look on screen. “Burning Cane” is his first feature film, so it will be interesting to see what he does in the future.

UPDATE: Array Releasing will release “Burning Cane” in New York City on October 25, 2019, and in Los Angeles on November 8, 2019. Netflix will release the movie on November 6, 2019.