“It’s all about the brotherhood.”
These words from Zurich (Trevor Jackson), delivered in a solemn voiceover, mark the beginning of Hell Week for he and his fellow pledgemates at fictional Frederick Douglass University. We meet this group in the middle of the woods, clad in black hoodies and sweatpants, preparing to undergo the first of many hazing rituals at the hands of their would-be “brothers,” the leaders of the Lambda Phi fraternity. One pledge doesn’t even make it past the opening scene, dismissed after intervening when Zurich is violently assaulted and left with a nagging injury eventually revealed to be a fractured rib.
The fact that anyone would be willing to subject themselves to such mental and physical abuse in the name of acceptance is troubling, but Burning Sands lacks a satisfactory exploration of the motives driving each of the pledges. There’s a vague mention of Zurich trying to prove something to his father, who didn’t make the cut when he pledged Lambda Phi, but Zurich’s relationship with his old man is never really developed beyond a scene or two where Zurich dodges his pop’s phone calls. The only other pledge we learn anything about is Square (DeRon Horton), an intelligent and bespectacled young man from a wealthy family with hopes that brotherhood will elevate his status, especially where females are concerned.
Speaking of females, there are only a handful that serve as anything more than window dressing. Zurich has a steady thing going with Rochon (Imani Hakim), but despite sneaking into her room to leave a birthday present on her bedside table, he’s still wiling to let himself be distracted by Angel (Seraya), an attractive fellow student from his African American Studies class, where Alfre Woodard plays the professor in a role that barely registers as a cameo. There’s also Toya (Nafessa Williams), an employee at the local fast food joint whose open approach to her own sexuality presents a challenge for Zurich, and repercussions that will come back to haunt him in the future.
Making his feature-length debut, director Gerard McMurray captures the horrors of underground hazing through a different sort of lens than last year’s similarly themed Goat. But where that film’s characters boldly challenged the status quo when things got out of hand, the young men in Burning Sands simply continue to endure the wanton cruelty doled out by the Lambda Phi brothers, which include Moonlight‘s Trevante Rhodes as the dean of pledges.
In another voiceover, Trevor recites a quote from the university’s namesake: “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.” McMurray is keen to showcase the callousness and brutality that reveal the truth behind this statement, but his film falls short of helping us understand why these events continue to occur.
Exploring similar themes as last year's Goat, director Gerard McMurray's debut examines the harrowing brutality of underground hazing at an all-black university, but fails to provide a satisfactory level of insight into the motivations of its characters.