From its opening moments BURNING CANE is notable for its murkiness, the way the light seems dimmed and clouded over. When light does appear, darkness wraps itself around it, cloaks it. But the two coexist here: light needs darkness and darkness needs light. But the play in the film between light and shadow, greyness and pitch blackness, is more than a stylistic scheme (although, as one, it’s occasionally worthy of Pedro Costa for the richness of its imagery). It’s a rebuke to a society which sees them only as opposites, and which views people in a similar manner.
BURNING CANE is, in both its moral and visual drama, a film out to contradict the simple vision of the world and its inhabitants promoted by Southern Baptism. In a small Louisiana town, whose every resident is black, Reverend Tillman (Wendell Pierce) delivers his sermon upon the world’s iniquities, its greediness, and its subsequent Godlessness. But his rhetoric creates straight binaries: all that is X is God, all that is Y is the Devil. Such a map of the world’s (and the community’s) happenings is inevitably reductive — it can’t help but flatten out the reality of how people are and disregards the real pain people live with.
One such person is Helen (Karen Kaia Livers), a devoutly religious widow contending with great hardships. Her husband died after contracting AIDS, she’s mourning the death of one son and the disintegration into alcoholism of the other, and she’s close to Tillman, whose righteous sermons disguise a soul enduring his own traumas. Oh, and (if you’ll forgive the unwieldiness of the metaphor) she has a dog who won’t stop scratching itself: she’s tried every remedy, over and over, and nothing will stop the itchiness. Perhaps it’s too cute a way to reference the ineradicability of grief from the community’s fabric. But the film has other and more splendid means of expressing the fact.
The profound cyclicality of the characters’ suffering is referenced in the parallel between Tillman and Helen’s son, Daniel (Dominique McClellan). Daniel is unemployed after a drink-induced fight occurs at work, so spends his days looking after his son, Jeremiah (Braelyn Kelly) and waiting for his wife, Sherry (Emyri Crutchfield) to return home from her job. Nowhere in the film is the rigidity of Tillman’s sermons denied more intelligently than when Daniel looks after Jeremiah: Daniel’s alcoholism makes this a challenge, and there are many scenes of him scarfing a bottle down in one (and putting more than a tipple in his son’s glass) followed by the aftermath of him stumbling in half-light, retching over the toilet bowl; but he’s also a tender father who nurtures his son’s quietude, helping him draw, feeding him. Soon however the spectre of violence nears, drawing an even deeper parallel with Tillman.
BURNING CANE is directed by Phillip Youmans, a young filmmaker (19-years young, to be exact) who demonstrates emotional fidelity to his subjects as well as an undeniable film sense coupled with a ready and substantial cinematic style. There are notes of Terrence Malick in the exalting low-angles and the backlit windows which silhouette the people indoors, but also something of the poetry apparent in Charles Burnett’s short film THE HORSE.
There’s a noteworthy disparity between performances in the film. Livers and Pierce are exceptional, for instance: she, with her opening voice-over monologue, sets the film’s melancholic but direct mood at its best pitch; he, with his soulful line readings and despairing visage, evidences the demolition of the community’s hope. It’s McClellan whose limitations stand out, though it may well be an issue with his portion of the script. His lines and the delivery of those lines are missing the verve visible elsewhere in the film.
This speaks to why some of the scenes in BURNING CANE can feel approximate. But there’s a scene between Helena and Tillman which has no such problem, a scene in which she helps him home after he’s found asleep at the wheel: it ends with a line within which lurks an awful morsel of humour, which redoubles the tragedy. This is a film with a searing, acidic sadness in its heart.