Directed by Phillip Youmans while still in his teens, Burning Cane is a film that looks into the private struggles of folks in poor, rural Louisiana cane country.
The film flips back and forth between scenes in the church and the home life of different families—a widow, Helen Wayne (Karen Kaia Livers), trying to conjure a home-remedy for her dog’s sickness; her jobless, sick, binge-drinking son Daniel (Dominique McClellan) who, while his partner is at work, watches his son Jeremiah in their apartment with no lights; Pastor Tillman (Wendell Holmes) who unsuccessfully hides his self-loathing behind the facade he creates at the pulpit.
Throughout Burning Cane, the lighting is often dim and shot from shadow, symbolizing the grim existence of the poor folk in town; the camera is hand-held with a slight wobble, but personal—Helen chopping and skinning of bloody chicken to cook, the clicking keyboards, the boy’s face illuminated by the light of the tv, the father using a knife as a screwdriver, the pastor stealing swigs of his flasks while driving and drifting off the road. Burning Cane asks us to take an intimidate look into the character’s struggle with poverty.
The film deals with several themes — how earthly poverty weighs on the spirit, the realities of everyday despair, the paradox of solipsism within family and community, and the struggle to find some purpose in a long life of suffering. One central topic in Burning Cane is the unhealthy tethering of dignity to traditional masculinity, particularly embodied by Pastor Tillman.
Pastor Tillman (who we can assume is drunk) goes a self-pitying monologue about a “generation of girly men...don’t know how to take care of their families, their businesses, their woman, or they church.” He says the young people don’t believe anything he is saying on the pulpit, but I think this is a projection—blaming the congregation to deflect from his own insecurity.
Leaving the church and rejecting an offer by Helen to drive him to his destination, he falls asleep on the side of the road in his car. When she later drives him home, Pastor Tillman wastes no time in pouring a glass of whiskey. We also see this masculinity crisis with Daniel. After his wife asserts that she is the breadwinner so can make independent decisions, Daniel hits her (taking her comments as cheap-shot towards his joblessness and an affront to his masculinity).
Burning Cane leaves you will questions (crescendoed in the ending, which I won’t give away here), but not a lot of answers. Don’t expect a bright light at the end of this cinematic tunnel. It is a sad, yet humbling film.
Check it out on Netflix if you can.
(Side: think viewers would find this film even more powerful and with an even deeper context if they watched this conversation between Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin, particularly their discussion about “faking” joy and functionality for the sake of the children).