When I was a child, my family lived in a three story apartment building in which a black fraternity owned the first floor. I still vividly remember being oddly struck by all the strange happenings going on all the time on the first floor. The weird inhuman noises, loud music, the parties, but especially the bizarre things that the young men would do. For instance, standing outside in a line formation, wearing nothing but their underwear, and shouting some strange pledge.
What kind of bizarre thing is this, my young mind wondered? Of course what I was observing was hazing – that strange ritual that men go though in order to become members of a fraternity. Although at the time I really didn’t understand what was happening, or what exactly a fraternity was, two things I knew for sure were: 1) It was pretty dumb to have a bunch of grown men act that way; and 2) there was no way I was going to get caught doing anything like that when I was their age. And I kept my promise. I am definitely not the fraternity type, and if that made me unpopular and an outcast, so be it. I’ve manged to do OK so far.
Yet, one has to admit that there is a strange fascination with the whole ritual, and an understanding is necessary of why men go through it. Of course, it creates a sense of identity, proves how manly you are, satisfies the basic human need of being a member of a cool, popular group, eliminating the fear of being an outsider, as well as upholding and preserving a historical legacy. And of course those all so important connections that could pay off down the road when one is making a name and a career for themselves. But at what cost – not only physically, but psychological as well? Those questions and more are explored in the mostly excellent new feature drama “Burning Sands,” which premieres this Friday on Netflix, after making its world premiere at Sundance in January.
Co-written and directed by first-time feature film director Gerard McMurray, and based on his own personal experiences from his college days, the film is set at a fictional HBCU, Frederick Douglass University (all the more current since our president was apparently just informed about all the wonderful things that Douglass has been doing in the community recently).
Its central focus revolves around Zurich (Trevor Jackson), a basically good kid with a devoted and caring girlfriend Rochon (Imani Hakim), who’s not always treated properly. But like most college kids his age, he’s unsure about his future and exactly where he fits in the world. Caught in strained relationship with his father, who we never see, Zurich is in the middle of “Hell Week” at the university, going through the various tortures that one must endure to be accepted into the school’s Lambda Phi fraternity.
Zurich is burdened with conflicting emotions, as well as building pressure from his peers, the school dean (Steve Harris) who recommended Zurich to the fraternity (and who expects Zurich to hold up the historical black tradition), and his own internal pressure to prove himself worthy.
Fortunately, his African American Studies professor, Professor Hughes (Alfre Woodard) sees the potential in him to accomplish great things. That is if he only just motivated himself and becomes more aware of the damage that trying to conform is doing to himself. There is also the fraternity’s lingering legacy of slavery in having black men do to each other, what slave owners had done in the past to break down their slaves. Or as Woodward in one scene points out to Zurich, using the Douglass quote, “It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men.”
Unfortunately, the pressure to be accepted, living up to the image of a strong black man is too great. But director McMurray adroitly points out the benefits as well, through the character of a young doctor who is a mentor to Zurich and a former pledge member himself. Black fraternities, of course, existed for black men to help other black men succeed and find purpose in life in a dominant white society that tends to shut them out from the mainstream. They were were created to help black men carve out their own way and support each other. But that mission, through subsequent generations, has become distorted and more of a power and domination game than one of true altruistic purpose.
Eventually events come to a boiling point in the film, leading up to a dramatic conclusion which may seem predictable, but inevitable however, in a way that you don’t expect.
McMurray doesn’t spare us any details with regards to the hazing pledges undergo. They are as disturbing and punishing as that are supposed to be, and in the film’s final hazing test, the filmmaker approaches it like an Italian Giallo horror film by Dario Argento or Mario Bava, with its lurid colors and in-you-face intensity to emphasize the revolting nature of the event.
On the negative side, his and co-writer Christine Berg’s script does have some faults – mainly with the female characters who (maybe not surprisingly) thinly drawn and not fleshed out fully, with the exception of Toya (Nafessa Williams), a local fast food worker who’s more savvy and self-aware than she lets on at first. Also the ending may seem too abrupt, although it was likely a conscious decision by McMurray.
But for a first time feature film filmmaker, the writer-director shows supreme confidence and gets some solid performances out of his cast, with a special mention given to “Moonlight’s” Trevante Rhodes, who plays the supporting role of Fernander, one of the veteran fraternity brothers who is all macho bluster, but reveals, through the slightest of emotions, his humanity and regret about what he doing, while still having to play the game.
“Burning Sands” is a well made, thought provoking film filled with subtleties and a compelling story that, like any good film, leaves us with questions, and challenges us to think about the repercussions of our actions.
Netflix premieres the film today, Friday, March 10th.