Hazing rituals, with their elitist foundations and untold mysteries, have long captured the imaginations of storytellers both comedic and dramatic. Most recently explored in the Nick Jonas vehicle “Goat,” but the topic is basically a subgenre at this point — from Todd Phillips’ documentary “Frat House” to the soapy thriller “The Skulls,” for comedic effect in the Zac Efron vehicle “Neighbors,” and, perhaps most famously, in Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused.”
“Burning Sands,” Gerard McMurray’s entry in the hazing canon, is set at a fictional Historically Black College (HBCU) called Frederick Douglass University. McMurray, an associate producer on Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station,” draws from personal experience to make his directorial debut. (McMurray co-wrote the script with Christine Berg). From the film’s overtly dark tone, it is safe to assume McMurray is critical of the most brutal hazing rituals, even if he glorifies them with his camera. The film is an ode to brotherhood, a word spoken often by the characters in “Burning Sands,” giving little indication that they fully understand its meaning until the film’s dramatic conclusion.
“Burning Sands” opens in the woods at night, where a line of hopeful pledges endure the shouts, push-ups, and punches that permeate the film. Gritting their teeth, each fraternity hopeful assumes his own version of a tough guy face; it’s as if scrunched nose, puckered lips, and squinting eyes were also a requirement of entering Lambda Phi’s hallowed ranks. From there, the lens of the film slowly focuses on Zurich (Trevor Jackson), a smart kid with everything going for him.
As Zurich and his “line brothers” enter the final stretch of pledging, the rules of hell week unfold with little exposition, and the viewer is left to accept that the young pledges will be in a state of perpetual panic throughout the film. They have to be somewhere every night at 9 pm, and they can’t be seen in public for some reason. It doesn’t really matter why: McMurray is not interested in revealing secret hazing rituals — he’d rather explore why his characters endure them.
Not that there aren’t tortures in “Burning Sands.” On the contrary, most of the film’s action revolves around a beat down of some kind. But don’t expect creative torments for your voyeuristic pleasure, if you’re into that sort of thing. In their quest to cross the “Burning Sands” of hell week, Zurich and his brothers endure lots of barks and plenty of bites. There’s punching spitting, paddling, drinking, demanding, and belittling. In short, the punishment is cruel but not unusual.
Zurich is a natural leader, at least according to his African American Studies professor, Professor Hughes (played by the legendary Alfre Woodard). Aside from being a hallmark of the HBCU experience, these classroom scenes allow McMurray to work in quotes from Frederick Douglass, such as: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” which becomes Zurich’s mantra throughout hell week.
Dean Richardson (Steve Harris of “The Practice”) also takes a shine to him, following Zurich’s progress with hawk-like intensity. When Zurich expresses doubts about the brutality of the hazing, his concerns fall on deaf ears. As Richardson reminds him, he is the one who recommended Zurich for his fraternity.
Brotherhood being the film’s main concern, its female characters are few, but a little fierce. Though he paints them in broad brushstrokes, McMurray successfully avoids stereotypes. And if they all have to be sexualized (save for Woodard), at least they have agency. His girlfriend, Rochon (Imani Hakim), is the least interesting, but the relationship is sweet. Brainy Angel (Seraya of ABC’s “Empire”) challenges Zurich intellectually in an underdeveloped plot line. Most intriguing is Toya (Nafessa Williams), a local girl who surprises Zurich with her vocabulary and unabashed love of sex.
To be fair, the male characters feel just as undeveloped. (This is mostly Zurich’s movie). Of his pledge brothers, only Square (DeRon Horton) stands out as the nerd with the most to gain from acceptance into Lambda Phi. Trevante Rhodes (“Moonlight”) plays Fernander, an older pledge brother with a smidgeon more heart than the rest. It’s the kind of throwaway part in a middling movie that Rhodes likely won’t need to take anymore.
When Professor Hughes points out the famous Douglass line, “It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men,” it is unclear which group “Burning Sands” is depicting. McMurray fixates too much on the brutality of his subject, foregoing any meaningful character development. The result is a film about punishment that is quite punishing to watch.
“Burning Sands” premiered in U.S. Narrative Competition at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017. It will be released on Netflix on March 10th.