“Leadership! Scholarship! Compassion! Brotherhood!”
These four words in any regular context should be laced with pride. They’re the type of words that are shouted at a rally, intended to boost the morale of fellow peers. They’re words that are individually whispered before a major presentation, acting as a reassuring force. They’re words declared in a commencement speech, graduation address or football championship pep talk.
So when I heard these four words painfully uttered through clenched teeth, while the young man uttering them was relentlessly beaten with a paddle, I was more than a little shocked.
Burning Sands, one of Netflix’s newest original films, shines light on the gruesome, almost barbaric initiation rituals associated with college hazing. Director and co-writer Gerard McMurray focuses the movie’s narrative on the less savory side of Greek life, depicting in great detail the Hell Week that new pledges are forced to endure. The plot primarily focuses on a new pledge named Zurich, played by Trevor Jackson, and his struggle to balance academics, a relationship and the seemly excruciating tasks of Hell Week. Alfre Woodard and Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes join Jackson in portraying this rough coming-of-age story.
Although the movie was objectively good, I’m struggling to put into words exactly how I feel about it. On the one hand, it focuses on a subject not often portrayed on film, which is the culture and life surrounding black fraternities. Movies like Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds and Neighbors all highlight the crazy, rambunctious aspects of fraternity life, but only through the lenses of white fraternity members. Even a movie like Goat, which focuses specifically on hazing in Greek life, is told from a white perspective. Burning Sands is composed of an almost entirely black cast, and specifically deals with the rituals involved with pledging a black fraternity. It tells a story that hasn’t really been told before, and because of that it’s unique among other harrowing stories of Greek life.
My main issue with the film comes with the fact that, despite being a coming-of-age story, there’s very little individualism among the pledges or even the brothers. Zurich is one of five new pledges to go through Hell Week, and although we get to see some of his internal struggle with the system, it’s never made clear exactly why these men choose to endure such awful treatment. The simple answer would be because they want to be in the frat and part of a brotherhood. But on film, the stakes seem so low. Where is the motivation coming from? These men are literally being beaten, humiliated and dehumanized in a multitude of ways, yet it’s never fully made clear why they choose to stand it. There are no individual stories, nothing to really and truly differentiate the pledges from each other. Perhaps McMurray’s intention was to show how inhumane the system can be; I can’t say. Regardless, while definitely dramatic, the movie lacked the extra layer of dimension that well-rounded characters require.
Burning Sands as a whole was a good movie. The performances were believable, the scenes were vivid and the plot didn’t fail to keep the audience’s attention. For such a unique story, though, one could hope for a little more individualism amongst the characters on the screen.