Sin’s Heritage

I am always interested in films that involve pastors, whether the pastors are good or bad. Because this is something I know from the inside out, it is not hard to tell whether or not the filmmaker actually knows what he or she is doing in writing or casting the character. Phillip Youmans knows what he is doing in Burning Cane (2019; streaming on Netflix).

The pastor is played by Wendell Pierce (probably most famously from The Wire as “Bunk” Moreland, but he has been in a thousand things). Having just watched Amazing Grace (documentary footage of the recording of Aretha Franklin’s gospel album), everything matches. The Baptist focus on the charismatic nature of the pastor and the hallmarks of a Baptist services feel lived from the inside out.

Reverend Tillman is triangulated in the film with Helen Wayne and her son, Daniel. This triangle forms the outline of a story with alcoholism, rigid religiosity, and masculine pride. From interviews with Youmans (who, amazingly, was 18 when he made the film), the plot stems out of his own experience in the black, Baptist churches of Louisiana, as well as from the tensions of genealogy, history, and a toxic form of masculinity. In one interview he says, “Even if the commentary is bleak, I still want it to come from an honest, nonjudgmental perspective.” He says the film examines, in part, “toxic masculinity,” so he clearly has a moral compass when it comes to examining the directions in which people move. But the larger point—that the best films show complex characters in complex situations, doing what they can—is depicted well.

People are not one-dimensional. They are full of contradictions and diverging motives. If a character is portrayed as singularly good or evil, there is no room for the viewer to examine and distinguish between and among those desires and motives. We are essentially given the judgment we are to make.

One of the things explored by means of these characters is the nature of hypocrisy, as Tillman’s alcoholism (and his pulpit?) drives away his wife, who hardly appears in the film and even when she does, we see only the back of her head. There is not really a sense Tillman is insincere or that he does not believe what he is saying. His hypocrisy, instead, is tied to his alcoholism, which not only runs counter to Saint Paul’s exhortations against drunkenness, but it fuels the tension in the penultimate scene, as he tells Helen how to deal with her son’s actions (even as he quotes from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians).

We love to see hypocrites on screen. We cannot wait to have bad people (or, often, people we simply do not like) exposed for “what they really are.” Is it because we are then able to justify ourselves and glory in our own self-righteousness, over and against the sinner who has been exposed? Or, in a related move, because it prevents our own hypocrisy from being exposed? There is no completely singular person. There is no one with complete integrity; no one who is, at all times, exactly on the inside what they are on the outside.

Pastors are no exception, of course. Christians should strive for integrity, that is, for integration of our private thoughts and actions into what we believe is right, as well as what we portray before others. But the old nature, the works of the flesh—toxic masculinity or femininity—will always be divisive of who we ought or want to be. There is no question we should struggle against the old which is passing away. But the Scriptures are clear, knowing what should be done is not at all the same as doing what should be done. The ought is not the is, and no amount of social commentary can make it so.

Burning Cane also shows well what type of fruit is produced from an independent and insular reading of the Scriptures. Since there is only the pastor and nothing outside of him, when Helen comes to ask him what she should do with her drunk, murderous (strongly implied, though not depicted) and abusive son, she receives an almost gangster-like answer: “You have to deal with this inside the family.” The insular religion then becomes a suffocating one.

It is a hard movie to watch without a lot of light (which will come as a surprise to my sister-in-law, I know). Also, it is not perfect, meandering and drifting a bit, and (as others have noted) underlit in places. But this film is a recognizable statement from a young filmmaker, and I am looking forward to seeing what Phillip Youmans does next.