Racial power dynamics are at the heart of Hollywood’s reigning box-office champ Get Out, a horror hit that not only upends genre conventions, but allegorically addresses the lingering legacy of slavery in 21st century America. That topic is of similar concern to the latest original feature from Netflix, Burning Sands, albeit in a manner that’s as unexpected as it is intriguing. Co-starring Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes in yet another film about African-American masculinity, Gerard McMurray’s drama—which premiered at January’s Sundance Film Festival, and is based in part on his own experiences—concerns five African-American college freshmen going through “Hell Week,” a hazing rite of passage required to gain admittance to prestigious Lambda Phi fraternity. It’s a saga of brutal physical and emotional violence, and the question lingering over it is: are these Greek men figuratively, if not also literally, adopting the tactics of slave-owners against each other?
McMurray’s film raises that provocative suggestion early on, during a discussion in Professor Hughes’s (Alfre Woodward) classroom about a historical letter describing the “fear, distrust and envy” used by whites to control their black human property. The ensuing student debate focuses on the document’s authenticity, and whether or not that matters if what it conveys is true. But it’s the reference to slave-owners’ methods—at the start of a story about African-American men doing analogous, terrible things to other African-American men—which hovers over the remainder of the proceedings. That pre-med student Zurich (impressive newcomer Trevor Jackson) hasn’t read this letter only further helps lay the foundation for the subsequent tale, in which Zurich is put through a gauntlet of torment and is forced to reassess his feelings toward comrades who are eager to dominate through terror—albeit in a spirit of fostering “brotherhood.”
Given that Burning Sands takes place at “Frederick Douglass University,” it’s apt that Douglass’s prose is a constant presence, be it in dialogue between Zurich and Hughes, or in Zurich’s own narration. The lessons gleaned from Douglass’s words, though, are complicated. “If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” Zurich recites at one point, underscoring the idea—initially subscribed to by Zurich, and born out by his fraternity big brothers’ professional success—that his suffering is for a greater purpose. Such a notion, however, is soon contrasted with Professor Hughes’s favorite Douglass quote: “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Whether hazing is thus a positive or a negative factor in a man’s maturation remains, to some extent, open to interpretation. Still, for much of the film, there’s little question that whatever long-term benefits there might be to this harassment, they’re not quite worth the short-term cost to both body and mind.
Zurich is joined in his fraternity quest by four mates, only two of whom—angrier Frank (Tosin Cole) and nerdy Square (DeRon Horton)—are really defined by McMurray and Christine Berg’s screenplay. Together, they try to draw strength from each other during the trials orchestrated by their elders, led by president Edwin (Rotimi), callous heavyweight Big Country (Christian Robinson), and smooth operator Fernander (Rhodes). Those often entail reciting fraternity dogma, doing push-ups, jogging in place, running errands, or standing arm-in-arm while being profanely berated—or spit on, slapped, punched and kicked. From its opening sequence, in which Frank suffers the repercussions of protecting Zurich from mistreatment, Burning Sands pulls no punches in its depiction of the horrors that would-be frat boys willingly tolerate to join their coveted Greek ranks.
To be sure, the extreme cruelty of campus hazing isn’t a new cinematic topic; just last year, Andrew Neel’s Goat provided a bracing first-person view of the traumas inflicted by (in that instance, white) students against their younger compatriots in the name of macho camaraderie. McMurray’s film isn’t nearly as stylized as Neel’s, taking a more straightforward aesthetic approach to its material. Nonetheless, it energizes its somewhat familiar subject matter through specificity. Rarely has the big-screen spotlight shone so directly on African-American college life, which is here rendered as a milieu at once distinctly “black” (the thudding hip-hop at frat parties; the step-dancing routines that take place at those shindigs, as well as in public campus spaces), and yet not all that different than any other sort of university setting, awash as it is in the usual mix of personalities, peer pressures and academic types. It’s a portrait whose universality is all the more compelling for its precise, unique details.
From Zurich’s alienation from his father (whose texts he won’t return), to his strained relationship with the girlfriend (Imani Hakim) who disapproves of his frat dreams, to his feelings of obligation to the dean (Steve Harris) who helped get him a spot on Lambda’s pledge roster, Burning Sands uses standard narrative conventions to forward a subtle, but powerful, point about racial equality. Moreover, in the escalating nastiness that Zurich and his friends are forced to endure—leading to broken ribs for Zurich, and doubts about whether undergoing such an ordeal makes sense—it continually raises the thorny issue of whether all this hazing is an example of African-Americans embracing the strategies of their former slave-era oppressors (and their white college counterparts) for similar supremacy-asserting reasons.
Even when its plot trajectory seems more than a bit predictable, McMurray’s film proves a shrewd snapshot of fraternity life that, encapsulated by a scene in which Rhodes’ Fernander is branded on the stomach by his brothers and reacts by jumping around with his friends in both agony and ecstasy, understands that frat life can beget both pleasure and pain, often in the same moment. Such ambiguity is also felt in a finale that finds Zurich and company coping with tragedy, and in the process, figuring out to whom they’re truly loyal.
While the answer isn’t altogether surprising, the message Burning Sands imparts about hazing’s solidarity-through-sadism ethos is slyly multifaceted—a complexity encapsulated by the pained expressions of Zurich as he wrestles with his thoughts (which one can almost hear, just by looking at him) in an extended closing shot that, among other things, heralds Jackson as a star in the making.