In the opening scene of Gerard McMurray’s “Burning Sands,” Netflix’s newest film, we find six young, Black college students driving into the forest at the crack of dawn to get beaten and verbally abused by an older brother of ΛΛΦ (Lambda Lambda Phi), the fraternity the boys are pledging. The six are “line brothers,” responsible for getting each other through the ritual hazing process.
A lot happens in this opening scene. As the film’s protagonist, Zurich (Trevor Jackson), lies on the ground being kicked, his line brother drops to defend him and is summarily evicted before we even learn his name. Those kicks, as it turns out, also leave Zurich with a fractured rib, which slowly grows in severity over the course of the film. While it becomes important later, it packs little emotional punch placed as the first scene, when there is not yet any context; we don’t know whether this scene represents an escalation or the status quo, nor do we know how to empathize with characters while we remain in the dark to their motivations and backstories.
Unfortunately, those questions linger unabated throughout the film. McMurray, who co-wrote the script based on his own college experiences, hammers the audience through the pledges’ “Hell Week” — the final week of hazing before being admitted to the fraternity — with only the briefest pauses for introspection or a foregrounded thought to the character’s motivations.
It’s an alienating move for the intended audience, which is likely to overwhelmingly include people who are not frat pledges at a historically black college — fictional, in this case, for obvious political reasons. Hints of those motivations are peppered throughout the film: the boys’ admiration for the lifestyle, campus prestige and girls that become available to them as members. An occasional nod is given to the post-college network of brothers who can help them out later in life.
For Zurich, his motivation seems to stem from a need to impress his father, a ΛΛΦ pledge who “dropped,” and the prodding of the college dean, who nominated him to the chapter. Why these things motivate him is more opaque.
The picture McMurray paints of fraternities — at least, those he experienced — and the ignorance or complacency of college administrations to the hazing, is a dire one. The college dean proudly wears his greek apparel and is wholly complicit in the violence — “You are only facing what other men have met,” he chides Zurich when the boy comes in questioning the severity of the hazing. Even Professor Hughes (in an almost cameo role by Alfre Woodard), who seems to want to look out for Zurich, makes no real attempt to sway him from his path.
In fact, nothing does — not the violence, losing his girlfriend, falling behind in classes or the multitude of unanswered calls from his father. Nothing seems to have any effect on Zurich’s ill-explored ambitions. And as for the other boys, nothing can really be said about their ambitions either, as they are so poorly differentiated that they nearly don’t exist as separate characters. Sadly, the bond that slowly forms between the boys is left mostly as an uninvestigated thread.
The first moment that the film feels viscerally real is in the climax, when things spiral out of control during the culminating “hell night.” That is the moment the film comes alive; the previous staticity explodes into emotional response. It’s a moment which should have arrived much earlier, leaving time for the characters to grow in response. Instead, when the status quo becomes challenged and we feel a tinge of empathy with the characters, we are left with a cut to black. It’s a powerful climax, but it’s poorly structured for any payoff.
McMurray has a very straightforward vision and presents what might well be the reality of pledging for one of these frats with a straight-edged accuracy. But any overarching message he and co-writer Christine Berg are trying to send is swamped out by shallow characters with little internal conflict or differentiation, leaving a flat “well, hazing sucks” as the only real takeaway “Burning Sands” has to offer.
“Burning Sands” is now streaming on Netflix.