Movie Review - Burning Sands

Since the year 2010, there have been 17 deaths in the United States with regard to so-called hazing rituals at various universities. This is down from 25 in the decade prior. Most of the deaths involve alcohol poisoning and are accidental. Most are about putting people in some kind of jeopardy or physical danger. One of the most reported cases was the death of Robert Champion at Florida A&M University in 2011. Champion was African-American and a drum major in the university's marching band. He collapsed during a hazing ritual in which he was subjected to physical assault from the other band members with weapons. The band leader was convicted of manslaughter. Most cases are centered around fraternities, almost exclusively. Even though most don't result in a death, the hazing rituals are all seemingly life-threatening and shouldn't be done.

Trevor Jackson (American Crime and Eureka) stars as Zurich, a young black student at Frederick Douglass University who is studying biology and is essentially pre-med. He's probably a sophomore, maybe a freshman. He's pledging a fraternity, Lambda Lambda Phi, and after three weeks, he's in what's known as "Hell Week." He and four other, black students undergo stressful and sometimes brutal activities at the hands of the fraternity brothers for five days. The movie documents that time period, ending on the fifth day.

Hell Week is a term most associated with the tough training that marines or Navy Seals endure to shake out the weak links or to truly test their metal. The beginning of this movie has the pledges standing in attention, in a line, doing push-ups and taking orders from a barking frat boy much like a barking drill sergeant.

As the days go on, the intensity escalates. Some of the activities aren't as crazy as one would imagine. The pledges have to get breakfast for the frat brothers or buy beer for a frat party. However, the activities do become increasingly torturous. Evidence is early that the frat brothers have no issue being physically abusive. It culminates in an explosion of violence.

Before that explosion, pledging starts to affect Zurich's schoolwork and even his personal relationships, specifically with his girlfriend, Rochon. Zurich is asked point-blank why is he doing this. He's asked why is he there, why is he subjecting himself to this abuse. His response is some rote phrase of what he thinks he should say, but he never really answers. Director and co-writer Gerard McMurray in his feature debut begs the audience instead to answer that question for themselves by the end.

McMurray cleverly floats out a possible answer. The pledges call a bunch of graduates who were frat brothers but who are now successful, black professionals. One is a pro-ball player. One is a lawyer and another is a businessman. Zurich talks to a doctor named Big Brother Malcolm. There's an implication that if the pledges endure the abuse, then that will lead to them becoming a success in the real world as well.

That idea isn't as well sold as the idea of brotherhood, the idea of black men sticking together and adhering to certain values, honorable ones. It's never explained how the hazing rituals evolved into something worse or persisted despite the illegality. However, it's up to Zurich to determine how those rituals or the preservation of them flies in the face of the so-called values they purport, and he repeats over and over.

There have been several films that have dealt with this issue or similar themes. Andrew Neel's Goat was more about proving masculinity. Kyle Patrick Alvarez's The Stanford Prison Experiment was more about proving authority. Here, much like Ava DuVernay's 13th, McMurray traces lines to slavery, connecting dots to abuses and hardships of the hazed black people today to that historical injustice that supposedly ended with the 13th Amendment.

The comparison is a little different because the institution in question here is one allegedly run by black people who are abusing their own. Yet, it's probably not coincidental that by the end of this film, the pledges are taken to a barn and basically treated like animals, even forced to eat dog food. As slaves, black people were seen and treated like animals, nothing more than cattle. The fact that the pledges are literally reduced to cattle-like behavior makes the case.

It helps that the film is supported with punctuated performances from Alfre Woodard (12 Years a Slave and Luke Cage) as Zurich's professor and Steve Harris (Minority Report and The Practice) as Zurich's dean. Both are outstanding in their brief roles. There is also a wealth of great, up-and-coming, black actors in this cast, including Trevante Rhodes, one of the stars of the Oscar-winning Moonlight.

Trevor Jackson is at the center though and he delivers what could also be an Oscar-winning performance. Jackson came off an equally powerful role in the Emmy-winning American Crime. The final shot of him is the final shot of the movie. It is all performance from Jackson, and he delivers a heartbreaking and truly lasting moment.

Again, as in DuVernay's 13th, this film concludes with a moving song from Common. "The Cross" by Common featuring Lianne La Havas is another perfect cap that the award-winning rapper has crafted for this movie.

Rated TV-MA.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 42 mins.

Playing at iPic Westwood.
Available on Netflix.


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