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Baptists on the big screen

The Tribeca Film Festival’s top jury award winner focuses on a Baptist church

A scene from Burning Cane DENIZEN PICTURES

Baptists on the big screen
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A New York moment:

I enjoy the Tribeca Film Festival because it gives more space to projects from film-world outsiders, unlike the New York Film Festival, which tends to showcase films from famous directors that already have theatrical distribution and Oscar prospects. Tribeca feels like a place where anything can happen, where you can find a documentary about a pastor in North Dakota or a feature film in Romanian.

This spring at Tribeca, the film that won the jury award for best narrative feature came from an African American teenager, who tells a story about a Baptist church in the Deep South. Phillip Youmans, the writer and director of Burning Cane, is the youngest director to get a film into Tribeca and the first African American to win the jury award.

Burning Cane follows a Baptist pastor (an incredible Wendell Pierce, who won the Tribeca jury’s best actor award) and one of his parishioners, who has a troubled son. I thought the film was excellent, although it was slow and too contemplative in certain parts. It has a tight, solid ending, which I appreciate more and more in independent films.

And how often do you see an art-house-style film about a dwindling, rural, black Baptist church in the South? At one point Youmans uses the entirety of Mary Lou Williams’ hauntingly beautiful choral piece “Black Christ of the Andes (St. Martin de Porres)” over a scene. The Tribeca jury compared him to a “latter day [William] Faulkner, [Eudora] Welty, [Tennessee] Williams.”

Phillip Youmans

Phillip Youmans Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Youmans wrote Burning Cane when he was 16, filmed it at 18, and is now 19, so he has an eye beyond his years. He grew up in a Southern Baptist church but describes himself now as agnostic. Personal bitterness toward the church doesn’t come through: In the film he gives the pastor a few scenes to preach uncut for several minutes. The pastor reads the entirety of Psalm 27 at one point (“One thing I ask of the Lord …”), along with Ephesians 6:10-18.

“Man is a rebel against God,” the pastor preaches. A relationship with God is “the most important relationship in your life.”

But Youmans does portray ugliness in the church. The pastor has a serious drinking problem, his parishioners curse, and the troubled son of the main parishioner watches porn. The story feels like it comes from someone familiar with the church he’s depicting.

Even if it was heavy, Burning Cane expanded my world a little bit. At the press screening I attended, I felt the tension in the room during the preaching scenes, so it seemed to me that it expanded the world of secular critics too.

Worth your time:

New York City is proposing a ban on sales of animal fur, angering an interesting cross section of people: the furriers in the Garment District, Hasidic Jews, and African American ministers in Harlem.

This week I learned:

The French translation of “The Sorting Hat” from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potterseries is “Le Choixpeau,” a clever mashing of the words choix (“choice”) and chapeau (“hat”). This post has additional interesting translations of Rowling’s fantastical words.

A court case you might not know about:

Federal prosecutors have recommended a sentence of only 17 years for cartel “prince” Vicente Zambada-Niebla, a thank-you for his help in taking down El Chapo as well as many other top Sinaloa cartel leaders. I was in Brooklyn federal court during El Chapo’s trial to see Zambada’s testimony, which was full of drama because he is a top target of the cartel for his cooperation. His father, “El Mayo,” now leads the Sinaloa cartel.

Culture I am consuming:

A YouTube cooking channel called Kdeb Cooking is one of the most relaxing things to watch. As birds chirp in the background, Kdeb carefully washes every ingredient in a clean bowl of water, cooks over an open fire, and then eats the meal with satisfaction at the end. I can’t confirm details about where in the world this kid is broadcasting from, but he’s doing a great job.

Email me with tips, story ideas, and feedback at

Emily Belz

Emily is a former senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and also previously reported for the New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City.



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