Watch Them Rise

Phillip Youmans, the writer-director of Burning Cane, on the importance and strength of family within the Black community in this moment.

Black means family. Black means beauty. I want my work as a filmmaker to increasingly be a celebration of Blackness. I come from a proud, hard-working, Southern Black family. We value community, education, equity, kindness, charity and integrity. My mother always reminded us, “What you do in the dark will eventually come to light.” Character matters. In other words, who are you when no one’s looking? With that in mind, she required complete transparency, and did not abide liars. We were taught the value of relationships, and maintaining them required some degree of nurturing. My family home is still an environment where we can share our feelings, and not be afraid to be vulnerable.

During these past several months, I admit to feeling a sadness that is tinged with despair
and some degree of trepidation as a result of the ongoing social injustice, the forced isolation of COVID-19 that requires quarantine, and the inability to move forward with work. To cope, I began reaching out to the two most important women in my life – my mother, Cassandra Youmans, MD, MPH, MSHCM; and my sister, Sydney Youmans – more now than ever before. They were there to listen, to support, to laugh, and to encourage me. They love me as I love them, unconditionally.

Phillip Youmans, age 3, with his sister Sydney and mother Cassandra at the siblings’ joint birthday party.

My sister and I grew up in an ethnically diverse community in New Orleans, and early in our life we were sheltered to a certain extent from the realities of growing up Black in America. My mom shared stories with us about what it was like for her growing up in the ’60s and ’70s in a small town in the South. But neither my sister nor I could truly relate to her experience or that degree of unrest, until now.

We both asked her recently how, over all of her years, she has managed the fear that’s implicit in her Black American experience. She said that, of course, she is always concerned and cautious, but that she had no other choice but to move forward with her life, given her reality. She also told us that recently she has been feeling more hopeful. She was excited by the diversity of the protesters coming together to march for change, and that she had not seen crowds like this since the civil rights movement. She believes that we have momentum and an opportunity to achieve genuine policy change, if the power of the movement can be harnessed when it comes time to vote.

The real change is inside each individual. We have to change hearts and minds, but we can’t do it alone. That is why the diverse array of people who have been protesting give my mother a sense of hope. These crowds may be able to speak to people who might not be open to listening to someone who looks like me or her. I also believe that change has to occur in our schools; history books must be rewritten and future generations taught about what actually occurred. America has a diverse and rich past, but we must be inclusive when we recount it. I should not have to take an African American History class to learn about events such as the Tulsa Massacre. The absence of the discussion about this country’s complicated history is a missed opportunity for all.

Amongst the many lessons this pandemic time has taught me, the most important is to really take full advantage of the in-person time that I have with my family. When we say goodbye to each other, we do not know if it will be the last time that we speak to each other again. Black lives have always mattered, but now others are realizing what Black people already knew, that Black lives are devalued and are in danger, and that we need the support of the broader community to help save them.

We must reinstate community policing; police should reflect the community in which they police. Police unions should hold bad police accountable, and no one should be above the law. Every institution should be held accountable, whether it is the police, Congress or the executive branch of government. For that reason, we demand justice for Breonna Taylor and countless other brothers and sisters who have lost their lives due to police violence and racism.

Phillip Youmans is a filmmaker from the 7th Ward of New Orleans. At 19, Phillip became the youngest and first African-American director to win the Founder’s Award for Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival for his feature-length debut, Burning Cane, which he wrote, directed, shot and edited during his final years of high school. Phillip is also the youngest director to ever have a feature film compete at the Tribeca Film Festival. Distributed by Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY Releasing, Burning Cane opened in select theaters on October 25th, 2019 and was released on Netflix on November 6, 2019. Phillip was nominated for a Gotham Independent Film Award for Breakthrough Director and a Film Independent Spirit Award for his work on the film. Recently, Phillip wrote, directed and edited a short film for Hulu’s Black History Month titled Imagine a Moon Colony, about a black family in 1970 Los Angeles that imagines the year 2020 through a black lens and creates abstract visuals based on their predictions.