Burning Sands, 2017
Directed by Gerard McMurray
Starring Trevor Jackson, Alfre Woodard, Steve Harris, Tosin Cole, DeRon Horton, and Trevante Rhodes.
Deep into Hell Week, a favored pledgee is torn between honoring his code of silence or standing up against the intensifying violence of underground hazing.
A fiery takedown of the fraternity pledging culture present in predominantly American universities, the feature debut from Fruitvale Station producer Gerard McMurray may not offer a particularly surprising look at the darker side of campus life, but benefits hugely from a lived-in feel and terrific ensemble cast.
Student Zurich (Trevor Jackson) is pledging at the coveted Lamda Phi fraternity, and his final test before being initiated is to endure Hell Week, seven days of humiliation and nervous tension as current frat members attempt to push pledges to the physical and psychological brink in order to prove their commitment to the house. In ripped-from-the-headlines fashion, of course, things inevitably escalate well beyond the control of anyone involved.
That’s what Burning Sands does better than just about anything else; it depicts the fast-rising degradation of Zurich and his fellow band of pledgees, running the gamut from verbal abuse to physical intimidation and, ultimately, straight-up violent, life-changing behaviour with reverberations for all involved.
Far more disturbing than anything physically shown on screen, however, is the creepy sense of “brotherhood” that’s touted throughout as one of the major appeals of joining a fraternity. A mostly alien concept to those living outside of the U.S., the incisive script however does a fantastic job depicting the preposterous power dynamics and mind games played by the complacent frat boys, and how they attempt to make this hierarchy pervade far beyond the university system. While one can see the appeal of joining a group that’s sworn by oath to help protect you personally and professionally, there’s a firm argument here that this is often at the expense of individual agency and one’s own “soul”.
Surprisingly, despite one disquieting sequence that vaguely nods at the idea, the movie actually skirts clear of causally linking the runaway masculinity of frat culture to the campus rape epidemic that’s received much press in recent years, perhaps deciding that focusing on one issue in greater depth was less risky than trying to conflate two distinct but oft-linked issues. After all, it’s when the script begins to tie frat life to other aspects of the American experience – in this case its history of black slavery – that it begins to feel a little ham-fisted.
Still, the script is for the most part on the pulse of an endemic problem, and is bolstered by an excellent collection of performances, most memorably Jackson, Moonlight‘s Trevante Rhodes as an aggressive, muscled frat boy, and Alfre Woodward as a professor trying to keep Zurich on the straight track. The film requires great physicality from its male leads and asks them to convey much emotion through facial expressions rather than words – these being teenage boys, after all – before leading to a third act climax that allows for something a little more volcanic and outward. There’s indeed a genuine tension to the movie’s final stretch, as the viewer is strung along to ponder quite what the finale of Hell Week will entail. It ain’t pretty, that’s for sure.
Though Burning Sands lacks a deeper analysis into the systemic nature of frat culture and hazing, the clear intent has been instead to dig deep into the trenches with the young men subjecting themselves to these obscene rituals, and the film feels nothing if not completely immersed in the reality of the scenario. Timely musical selections and sumptuous cinematography from Isiah Donté Lee certainly don’t hurt either.
Another strong acquisition for Netflix’s increasingly on-the-ball library of recent festival hits, this troubling drama earmarks McMurray as an intriguing talent to watch as he prods a prevalent American social issue that absolutely cannot (and should not) be ignored.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.