Director: Gerard McMurray
Cast: Trevor Jackson, Alfre Woodard, Trevante Rhodes
Watch Burning Sands online in the UK: Netflix UK
“They used fear, distress, and envy for control,” we hear during one classroom discussion about slavery in Burning Sands, a film about a group of university students trying to get into a fraternity. From Old School to Goat, frat boy flicks can vary dramatically in tone, from shocking drama to silly comedy. Netflix’s new original film makes it clear from the off that this no laughing matter.
We follow Zurich (Trevor Jackson), who’s recommended for the Lambda Phi fraternity by his college’s dean (Steve Harris). We join him and a gaggle of others at the start of Hell Week, seven days of torturous hazing to prove their mettle and motivation to become a pledge. “Brotherhood, scholarship, leadership, compassion,” are the values the group stands for, Z bellows on command, pouting his lips and staring aggressively ahead. But it soon becomes apparent that some of those are more valued than others.
Brotherhood is the quality that the cruel seniors repeatedly remind their new recruits of, the importance of sticking together to overcome brutal treatment. And so they force them to work together, blindfolding them, feeding them dog food on the floor, beating them repeatedly and marching them through the woods. If one should become injured, another has to help. If worse should happen, another has to dump him outside the hospital.
Director Gerald McMurray thrusts us head-first into the horrific hazing rituals, not flinching from the hairline fractures and bleeding wounds. That unfazed, grim approach to its subject matter leaves us, like the pledges, nervously waiting for the ominous onset of nightfall, when each day ends and another bout of beatings begins. But it’s when McMurray pulls back from these intense, oppressive sequences that Burning Sands turns up the heat, and we catch glimpses of Z’s life outside of the rituals. His slipping grades and his strained bond with his girlfriend may not be particularly original or surprising plotlines, but McMurray is posing more interesting questions in the background, as Z reveals that he’s so keen to pledge because his father never completed his hazing – this, to some extent, is a way for him to prove and assert his own identity, the son overtaking the father.
Both, however, are eclipsed by their shared history, a history that the college (named after Frederick Douglas) wears on its sleeve. Brief lessons in the classroom see the abolitionist quoted over and over by Professor Hughes (a scene-stealing Alfre Woodard), and echoed by Z in his own essays. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will,” we hear. “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
The meaning behind them are twisted and distorted by those in power, whether that’s Hughes trying to coax Z away from the harmful brainwashing of the fraternity or Harris’ Dean, insistent that this tradition of masculinity needs to be upheld. “You are merely facing what other men have met,” he declares, forcefully, even as Z, clutching his injured ribs, argues that it’s time for a change, with lives and honour at stake.
With fraternities driven underground, where they can become even more severe, the parallels between the hazing and the dehumamising treatment of African-American slaves only become more unsettling, with one scene even seeing the students branded with scalding hot metal. “Humiliation breeds humility,” they’re told by their tormentors (including Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes). “One more night of it is not gonna kill you.”
The dramatic irony carries the weight of that institutionalised paradox with a pressing, immediate power, and McMurray finds strength in the explicit questions and contradictions he raises. By stripping away the individuality of these men (with shaved heads, it soon becomes hard to tell them apart – one, nicknamed Square, is tellingly only asked for his real name by Z near the end of the film – and that allows the fraternity to fill them instead with the toxic masculinity of history, passing down a tradition through generations that, in some ways, prides themselves on surviving such brutality and, in others, only reinforces that behaviour for another year. There are no easy answers here, and Burning Sands doesn’t pretend to offer them: this is a bold, brutal, provocative drama about modern masculinity, identity and history, which leaves questions knocking around your head for days. “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” Hughes tells Z at one point. By the end, though, there’s no doubt that this child has already become a broken man.
Burning Sands is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.