Fraternities and sororities at historically Black colleges and universes have had a significant impact not just on the students who are a part of them but on the Black community as a whole. In films like “Drumline” and “Stomp the Yard,” which are set on HBCU campuses, we often get a small glimpse into the sacred world of pledging, the focus of these film shining a light on other aspects of college life. Perhaps not since Spike Lee’s 1988 film “School Daze” has there been such a major focus on pledging Black frats and sororities and the hazing that often comes along with that.
In his feature directorial debut, “Burning Sands” director Gerard McMurray gives an emotionally honest and raw look into the world of 21st-century fraternity pledging. Told from the perspective of Zurich (Trevor Jackson “American Crime’) who is torn between honoring a code of silence and standing up against the intensifying violence of underground hazing, the film is a dark and gritty look at the bonds of Black brotherhood and rites of passage. Alfre Woodard, Steve Harris, Tosin Cole, DeRon Horton and Trevante Rhodes also star in the film. Ahead of the film’s Sundance debut last month, I got a chance to chat with Tosin Cole and DeRon Horton who play Frank and Square, respectively. We chatted about the history of pledging, getting into character and forming a brotherhood.
Aramide Tinubu: Hi Tosin and DeRon how are you guys?
Tosin Cole: Hello, good evening.
DeRon Horton: Hey what’s happening?
AT: I’m great thanks. I just finished watching “Burning Sands, ” and I thought it had such powerful message. I know that fraternities and sororities are such a major part of HBCUs and Black academia, but what research did you guys do prior to stepping into the roles of pledges?
DH: I researched a lot on the Internet. I tried to find information from people who had gone through pledging and hazing. I also talked to Gerard because he pledged. He brought people that went through the same thing with him to set to help up with our transition in the film. So, I think that helped us a lot. But the film actually, it's based on the relationship between these five guys becoming friends and having bonds, so I think that’s what really helped us to be honest.
TC: Yes, to go off of what DeRon said, it was just a lot of research and just taking in every experience that you can. With pledging being so prominent in America, we had stunt guys and tech guys who had done it, so we were talking to them. We would go to the gym, and we see an old head at the gym with his tattoos on his arms, and we would get to talking to him. He would break down what it meant to him and why he got involved, and the history as well. Filming in a college in Virginia, we would see students on campus even though campus was closed. They would talk to us about why they wanted to pledge and what they went through. So, it was kind of taking all of the information that we could surrounding pledging and using it to the best of our abilities.
AT: Fantastic. So what shocked you most about this script? This story is very different from “Drumline” or “Stomp the Yard.” "Burning Sands" is more reminiscent to Spike Lee’s "School Daze.”
TC: For me, I obviously knew about fraternities and things like that, but I never knew that hazing was illegal; I never knew that in order to become a part of a fraternity you had to go through hazing. That’s what shocked me. I was like, “Wow, people really go through this; it’s really that aggressive.” I though it was like having parties and meeting girls and volunteering in order to be a part of something. When I realized it was a lot more deep, dark and interesting, that’s what really excited me about this project. So yeah, I guess what people really go through, that was the shock factor for me. This was stuff I never knew, so I thought it would be dope to experience it as someone who really wanted to do this.
AT: What about you DeRon?
DH: I agree with Tosin, but I think what shocked me more was how easy the script was to read. You read a lot of scripts, and they can have scenes where people are being beaten or an action scene, but this was super easy. When I was reading it, I was actually able to see it. It was a shock, but it was also good to see.
AT: Let’s talk about the hazing, Black masculinity and how it’s often equated with violence. How did you guys approach the more difficult scenes in the film knowing all of this?
DH: Well, I think we were all just super invested in making the film really good. We were eager to see how the hazing process would go, but we also trusted one another. We trusted the guys not to beat the shit out of us. (Laughing) I think we also wanted to go through it as much as possible, or at least I did, I loved the struggle. I think being uncomfortable is the only way to get true art.
TC: It was really tough to go through those scenes because we wanted to make it as real as possible. So Gerard pushed us, we pushed each other, and we really went for it. There was really no half-assing around. We were just really invested in it, and that’s what makes it real. The more raw and gritty it is the more you can experience it. If you sugarcoat it, you don’t get that raw feel. We weren’t trying to glamorize it; we were trying to tell the story for what it is and what people really go through. We just really tried to find the truth.
AT: For me as a viewer, it was really scary because some of the big brothers could reign in the dominance and violence while others couldn’t. That’s when you get these really problematic things that occur when people are pledging. Do you think this underground hazing is a part of our generation or has it always been there?
TC: Obviously back in the day hazing was legal; you could go as far as you wanted. But after people started passing away and getting seriously injured, the government decided to put a stop to it. But, pledging is so strong that the legacy must go on, the show must continue. People believe in it so highly so the hazing has continued, but maybe in some instances, it’s just a bit toned down. People don’t want to break the tradition even though the government makes it illegal. Some people think, “I went through hell when I was pledging so, even though its illegal we’re still going to continue.” That just shows you determination.
AT: How did you all approach your characters individually, Tosin as Frank and DeRon as Square? Did you makeup back-stories?
DH: Yeah, I mean I guess I kind of took some things from people I saw. If I saw a quirk in somebody else that I thought was super intriguing or super out of the ordinary, I took it. My character Square, he sort of looked up and to the left a lot, or he walked with head down. I like to change up everything, so I get rid of all of the DeRon in the character. I changed his voice, and I made up his back-story. So it was creating a story back-story and specificity.
TC: For me it was looking at the script, breaking down the script and going with my instincts, I thought about who people feel Frank is, and how the upperclassmen interact with him. Then you create a backstory. Obviously, you get some indication that he has legacy. His dad pledged, and his granddad pledged, so he’s completing that family tradition. Then I wanted to make it interesting; I was thinking, “Why is Frank so angry all the time?" "Why is he so pessimistic?" "Why is he not really a part of the group?” I created a story that maybe Frank comes from a hardworking family, maybe he’s from an environment where he has to carry himself in this sort of light. Maybe he can’t show how smart he is to everyone. He might have to put a sort of armor around himself, and I think the armor he created, he brought that with him to pledging. It took him awhile to brush that off because he’s very to himself. I think that’s something that comes from his environment. I also wanted to make sure there was a shift when he goes through this journey; I wanted people to say. “Oh, he is a nice guy.” People change, and there are more sides to one person they may want to reveal.
AT: Certainly. Just to wrap things up for both of you, it seemed like you all had a ton of fun on the set. There were actors from “Power,” ”Empire,” “Moonlight,” and a ton of different series and films. What was that experience like being on set? Did you all have a big brotherhood? Was it like returning to college for a bit?
TC: It was dope, all of the boys stayed in this shack type of thing. So we lived together. All of the pledges were on one floor, and the big brothers were on another floor, so we had that difference. All of the girls, unfortunately, were in a hotel away from us, so we were isolated. (Laughing). So that really created a brotherhood bond, we worked out together, we had fun, it was like a big family. We went go-carting, paintballing, and did tons of activities on our days off or we just caught some food and had to good conversation. So it was an invaluable connection. We all got along really well, we all support each other. That’s what the film is about, that relationship among men in the Black community. All of us coming together and being one no matter what differences we have. Obviously, it was great seeing people you look up to and idolize; to actually work with them, it was a gift. It was really fun.
AT: DeRon what was your experience like?
DH: It was great, It was fantastic to see young Black actors altogether. Some of them are more in the limelight than we are, but we all had humble attitudes. That made it easier for us to be vulnerable on set and to want the best for each other. So it couldn’t be a more natural process.
AT: Thank you both so much! Congratulations on Sundance!
DH: Thank you!
TC: Thanks we appreciate it.
"Burning Sands" premiered at Sundance Film Festival in the US Dramatic Competition. The film will be available exclusively on Netflix on Friday, March 10, 2017.
Netflix has premiered a first trailer for the film which is embedded below:
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami