For some reason, the entertainment industry has latched onto fraternity hazing and won’t seem to let go. Last year, “Goat” showed the intense, torture-like process fraternity pledges go through. No amount of alcohol, sex or partying could possibly make up for the hell pledges seemed to endure for the sake of brotherhood. Gerard McMurray, in his directorial debut, jumps on board the hazing-train with “Burning Sand.” Unlike “Goat,” which depicted white Greek Life, “Burning Sands” is about a fictitious black fraternity, Lambda Lambda Phi.
McMurray created the movie in response to a fatal hazing incident at Florida A&M. Although most fraternities do not practice hazing methods so militaristic and dangerous, it’s still an issue of paramount importance. “Burning Sands” chronicles five pledges’ hell week filled with grueling abuse by their brothers. In order to show their worth and become official members, the pledges withstand kicks to the ribs and other forms of dehumanization. The movie tends to spend a bit too much time showing the hazing and doesn’t characterize the brothers. With every blow and punch, the excessive violence bloats the movie.
Up-and-coming television sensation Trevor Jackson (“American Crime”) stars as the movie’s lead character, Zurich. Unlike some of his fraternity brothers, Zurich questions the importance of Greek Life and whether or not the misery is worth it. He’s likable, but as the pledging process takes complete control of his life, he’s forced to make major sacrifices. Jackson’s performance is never overly melodramatic, but viewers don’t get to know many sides of him. In fact, none of the brothers feel like actual characters, but props to show that hazing has many negative physical and psychological effects. Fans of last year’s masterpiece “Moonlight” will be happy to see a familiar face; Trevante Rhodes plays Fernander, one of the pledge masters responsible for making life hell for Zurich. Still, this brief performance isn’t enough to make up for the lack of character development throughout the movie.
University administrations often treat fraternity hazing like a worn-out parent treats their high school child’s marijuana addiction: If you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. Frats everywhere publicly deny the use of hazing and advertise a safer, less torturous process for pledges, even though everyone knows it’s a bit fishy. However, in “Burning Sands,” it seems like the whole administration and staff at the university are completely aware of the barbarous pledging process, and almost encourage it. Movies don’t have to be perfect imitations of reality, but there should at least be some aspects of believability.
Many parts of “Burning Sands” remain unresolved, though not in a philosophically stimulating way. It seems McMurray throws in some characters and events just to see if they’ll stick, with no intention of creating deeper meaning. The movie has several subplots tying into Zurich’s life, but all get lost and forgotten at some point. Zurich is assigned to write a paper on Frederick Douglass, which makes some connections with his hazing-induced suffering and the Black community’s oppressed past. However, after about two minutes exploring this, McMurray chucks the possibility of a deeper racial meaning out the window and goes back to only highlighting hazing. This could have transformed “Burning Sands” from a simple hazing story to a complex and compelling narrative about race. Ultimately, it feels like a huge loss on McMurray’s part.
A movie about hazing, in essence, writes itself. It’s bound to have a combination of glorified party sequences and moments of brutal, dramatic torture. Whether or not the world needs more hazing movies is a bit questionable. At this point, the message is clear: Hazing is bad. In some respect, the hazing movie is a welcomed departure from college movies like “Neighbors” and “Old School” that depict a one-dimensional image of college life. But, perhaps it’s time that directors completely ditch the whole Greek Life scene in favor of other college themes.