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Review: ‘Burning Cane’ and ‘The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open’ Are Ava DuVernay’s Hidden Gems on Netflix

By Roxana Hadadi | Film | March 21, 2020 |

By Roxana Hadadi | Film | March 21, 2020 |


Ava DuVernay has long championed underrepresented voices through her film distribution company ARRAY, and thanks to a partnership with Netflix in 2016, many of ARRAY’s films end up streaming there exclusively. ARRAY’s website makes this mission pretty clear—“Our work is dedicated to the amplification of independent films by people of color and women filmmakers globally”—and docuseries like They Gotta Have Us, about the influence of black identity on pop culture; Jezebel, about a young black woman working as a cam girl in the ’90s; and The Burial of Kojo, a magical realist tale told from the perspective of a young girl in Ghana, are all worth your time.

In particular, I was recently blown away by two ARRAY films that were added to Netflix late last year: Burning Cane, the debut from filmmaker Phillip Youmans, who was 19 when he wrote, directed, photographed and co-edited the film, and The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, written and directed by Kathleen Hepburn and Indigenous filmmaker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers. Given, you know, everything that’s happening, I was finally able to make time to check out these two streaming films, and am glad I did. Both films are astonishingly emotional, deeply upsetting yet engrossing, and frankly unforgettable. When we talk about broadening our cinematic perspective to more than just old white guys, these are the points of view we’re talking about, and these are the films you should be adding to your queue.


Clocking in at only 77 minutes, Burning Cane sometimes feels more like a collection of visual poems than a connected narrative, until you finish the film, take a step back, and realize how Youmans has assembled a series of vignettes that are unmistakably interconnected thanks to theme and tone. There is a very thoughtful, impressively unyielding statement here about generational trauma, the false promise of religion, and the dire circumstances facing the rural poor, and Burning Cane leaves just enough threads dangling for you to keep turning over in your mind afterward. The film is set in a majority-black town in rural Louisiana (in fact, I don’t remember any white people), where 90-degree days with 70% humidity are the norm, where gigantic fields of chin-high sugarcane are everywhere, where work is hard to come by but prayer is always offered.

What impact does all that worship have, though? Truly? According to the local pastor, Rev. Tillman (Wendell Pierce, so good, as always), God is all-seeing, all-knowing. He preaches faith through compliance, and compliance through fear, and he is sconrful of possessions, and critical of people turning against religion, and very nearly hateful toward the transsexual community. “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world if he loses his soul?” Tillman thunders from the pulpit, but from the beginning, we see the hypocrisy of this man. How he swigs on a flask while driving, how he probably delivers sermons while drunk, how he used to explode into volcanic rages directed at his female partner. He tells a story about blacking out and waking up to see her mopping up her own blood, and then she died. Tillman is a respected man in the community—someone that the deeply religious Helen Wayne (Karen Kaia Livers) looks up to nearly without question—but he is not kind.


But Helen turns to Tillman because of her problems at home, in particular with her son Daniel (Dominique McClellan), an alcoholic barely taking care of his son, Jeremiah (Braelyn Kelly). During the day, Daniel drinks liquor, drinks beer, gives Jeremiah a swig of whatever he’s having, puts the boy to sleep with a glass of what looks like beer foam. Sometimes, there’s a hint of something menacing in his interactions with his son—a scene cuts away when we see Daniel walking up behind Jeremiah, or when the two of them are dancing to jazz records, closer and closer. Perhaps that’s paranoia, but Youmans builds the tension, quite unrelentingly, in these familial scenes. Bursts of violence can happen at any time. Daniel lunging toward his wife, before she left him. Fighting with Helen, in a drunken daze. There is something rotten here, and no matter what Helen does, she can’t fix it. Not with prayer, not with tough talk. What will become of Jeremiah, this boy who wanders so innocently through orange trees, who is almost lost amid the sugar cane? “You’re going to have to deal with this privately. Just you and God,” is the utterly useless advice Tillman gives her when Helen asks for her help, and Youmans makes his point clear—sometimes, in this world, we are utterly alone.

It’s a bleak message, to be sure, but Youmans stops short of poverty porn in depicting this town; we aren’t invited to gaze upon hardship over and over again. These people are legitimately faithful, even if Tillman is a hypocrite. The choir is passionate. The churchgoers are genuine. Helen truly needs help. But what Youmans insists upon making clear is that quite often, our only pleasures are earthly ones—the orange Jeremiah picks from a tree and eats; the song that Jeremiah and Daniel listen to, “They’re Red Hot,” originally recorded by blues legend Robert Johnson; the slice of cake Helen cuts for herself and devours in her kitchen. The film begins with a lengthy monologue from Helen in which she discusses the numerous remedies she’s tried to cure her dog Jojo of mange, and the scene ends with Helen taking Jojo a bowl of food in the woods. She wants to cure him. She doesn’t want to watch him die. And whether that desire is ultimately fruitless in this sort of place, where there are few solutions to systemic problems of ceaseless poverty and fundamentalist danger, is the answer Burning Cane is trying to find.

Burning Cane, with its hazy, soft-focus cinematography and its sometimes disjointed timeline, is certainly different from The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, which relies on lengthy single takes to build intimacy and trust between us as viewers and the female characters at its center. But the films share an interest in understanding how outside forces—social, cultural, sexual—particularly impact individuals of minority communities. What elements of yourself are shared with other people who might look like you? What do you owe those people? What do they owe you?

That framing is, I think, essential to viewing The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, which is set in Vancouver, which has the third-largest population of Indigenous peoples in Canada. The film introduces us to two women going about their day in this constantly rainy, heavily industrialized corner of the city: First is Rosie (Violet Nelson), in a tie-dye hoodie and with dyed blue hair, who offers a gentle smile to a woman and baby who get on the same bus as her but otherwise doesn’t make eye contact with anyone. She doesn’t talk much. She goes home to an apartment where we hear a man yelling, raging, slamming doors and cupboards, and next we see her, she’s on the street outside. No shoes. A bloody lip, bruises on her face, marks on her neck.

Rosie is found there by Áila (Tailfeathers), who is returning home from an appointment to insert an IUD. The procedure, in total, takes maybe 5 minutes, but we feel Áila’s mixture of hesitancy and determination, and begin to understand why when she shares that she’s on a variety of medications for her anxiety, that she got an abortion some years before, that she’s certain that she won’t change her mind about the IUD during the length of its 3-year efficacy. Áila seems very much like the kind of woman who has her shit together, so when she confronts Rosie on the street and immediately springs into action, it feels like a comfort. She sees that Rosie is shivering, that there’s an angry man across the street screaming at her (“Rosie, you bitch … I barely touched you … You’re one fucking dead girl”), and she, with Rosie’s tacit permission, begins to drag her away. (Their speed-walking from that scene as they constantly look over their shoulders to see if Rosie’s boyfriend is following them is one of the most frightening, relatable sequences I’ve seen on film in a while, tapping into the same understanding of domestic violence displayed earlier this year in Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man remake.)


But once they arrive at Áila’s gorgeously airy, meticulously decorated apartment, whatever united front these women had in that escape begins to deteriorate. Áila is relentless with her questions—what kind of tea Rosie wants, what Rosie wants to do, if she’s going to return to her boyfriend—and Rosie is increasingly combative with her answers. She doesn’t care about the tea flavor. She has no idea what she wants to do. And maybe she does want to return to her boyfriend, even with the abuse, because she’s pregnant with his child. The two women may share Indigenous ancestry (Rosie being Kwakwakaʼwakw, whose traditional lands include Vancouver Island, the Discovery Islands, and mainland British Columbia, and Áila being Sámi and Blackfoot, as Tailfeathers is), but that doesn’t immediately connect them. There is an age gap here, and a socio-economic one, that Rosie picks at often. She calls Áila white; “Everybody’s native these days, hey,” she smirks when Áila says her boyfriend is Indigenous, too. She mocks Áila’s outfit, wondering if she’s a missionary. And when Áila isn’t looking, she swipes things from her apartment—pills, cash—that she puts into the purple backpack she never lets go of.

But Rosie is never, the film makes clear, a villain. She is a woman abused, pushed aside, ignored; she is used to making herself small; she has been conditioned by her boyfriend, and by the way Indigenous people in Canada are still underserved by the federal government, to expect very little of anyone. To prepare herself for hurt instead of opening herself up to anything better. Áila is either operating under motivations Rosie hasn’t uncovered yet, she figures, or she’s naïve, and not entirely undeserving of Rosie’s scorn. And while Áila is clearly trying to help, she admittedly doesn’t treat Rosie as an equal. She speaks for her and over her. She asks questions that maybe aren’t so polite to ask a stranger, like what Rosie plans to do about her pregnancy or why she had a case worker. “Some days I don’t even talk at all,” Rosie defiantly says, but as she and Áila take this journey together to try and find a safe space for Rosie to spend the night, they argue, they fight, they disagree. These women are decidedly not the same despite being shaped by similar forces, and Kathleen and Tailfeathers’s script takes care to give each woman her own identity while still acknowledging that some desires—for safety, for acceptance—are universal.

Motherhood is considered from all angles in The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, but much like the treatment of religion in Burning Cane, there are no tidy answers here for how to tackle parenthood. Rosie can’t defend herself from her boyfriend’s array of violence (which she describes in agonizing detail in a late scene, a cataloguing that is given additional discomforting affect because we never move away from Nelson’s face during it), but she is adamant that she will defend her baby. How could she do this? And why does she expect that he would change? These are familiar concerns to anyone aware of any sort of statistics regarding domestic abuse, but familiar too is Áila’s wariness about becoming a mother, even with a loving partner. The women are positioned as two extremes in terms of femininity and maturity, but there are recognizable, common elements to each of their struggles—and the film’s most resonant moments are when Rosie and Áila realize that, too.

Early on, Rosie and Áila bond over the Joni Mitchell song “Little Green”: “You’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed, little green/Little green, have a happy ending,” the folk singer wrote in a track inspired by the daughter she placed for adoption in 1965. The song is regretful but not entirely unhopeful, envisioning a future in which the cyclical nature of the seasons trace a child’s path into adulthood. I wish I could tell you that Burning Cane or The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open offer the same kind of reassurance that Mitchell was trying to communicate to her daughter, but the films’ priorities are directness and candor, not comfort. The perspectives they offer are portraits of communities many of us aren’t part of but that are worthy of our awareness, our empathy, and our respect.

Burning Cane and The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open are both streaming on Netflix.

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Roxana Hadadi is a Senior Editor for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter.

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