Netflix, the maker of Orange is the New Black and the premiere site for binge watching TV, made the decision to premiere this year’s Sundance hit, Burning Sands.
Starring Trevor Jackson, Alfre Woodard, TreVante Rhodes, and Steve Harris, the film tackles hazing among fraternities at a fictional historically black college.
Zurich, played by Jackson, wants to join the popular and illustrious Lambda Lambda Phi Fraternity at the fictional Fredrick Douglas University. His initial motivation for joining is to complete the process his father was not able to complete.
From the onset we see what will end up being a tell tale case of hazing gone wrong. Zurich and his pledge brothers are running in the woods when their dean stops them and makes them do pushups. First, they are in the woods, second, it seems to be early morning and they clearly are exhausted, but lets get back to the story.
Zurich is kicked in the side while doing his push ups and falls to the ground. Now here I am thinking, “Lord they broke this boy’s ribs” but clearly no one shares my concern. As a result one of Zurich’s pledge brothers quits because as he said “I do not need this shit”, my sentiments exactly.
Zurich and his pledge brothers go on to endure increasing violence and abuse at the hands of their future fraternity brothers. Zurich’s relationship with his girlfriend heads for an inevitable end since he is spending so much time being a pledge that he never has time to be with her. I mean, you think she would understand that pledging is a lengthy process that requires much attention, but of course she just cannot fathom why Zurich has to pledge all the time. Anyway she goes on her merry little way as Zurich continues to go through his process.
Zurich’s pledge brothers, who do not get much of a back story, are painted as pledges who join for the wrong reasons. One guy is a legacy, his dad and granddad are members of Lambda, one guy is a nerd who wants to get girls, and the other one is a church kid looking to shed his holier than thou image. Clearly, these guys haven’t researched anything about reasons to join a frat and reasons not to, but lets go with that.
So Zurich did not get his ribs checked by an actual doctor at an actual hospital or clinic, but he went to the house of one of the Lambda brothers who is currently doing his medical residency. The brother gave him some aspirin and told him it would take 6 to 8 weeks for his ribs to heal, but seeing that Zurich is in the middle of Hell Week, he does not have six to 8 weeks. So he just has to tough it out.
His professor, played by Alfre Woodard, finds out about his injury and urges him to do more about it but of course, he cannot talk about it because in walks the fraternity chairman, the very man who selected Zurich to pledge his frat. So nope, Zurich can’t talk now, at least not to her. He does however go to the fraternity chairman with his concerns but the chairman dismisses him saying, “I went through the process, and I know one more night will not kill you.” Well we will see about that.
Finally Hell Night comes and Zurich and his pledge brothers are ready for this all to be over so they can be members of the great Lambda Lambda Phi. They get haircuts provided by their future brothers then are taken to a barn where the real fun can begin. Fun that of course consists of being screamed at and hit and fed animal food. Yaaay, what fun.
Then tragedy strikes. A pledge collapses, everyone scrambles. Zurich and his remaining pledge brothers take their brother to the hospital. They contemplate leaving him outside the emergency room and driving off, until they regain their common sense and see how unfriendly and unbrotherly that would be. The final scene is of Zurich crying in the waiting room. We do not find out what happens after that. I guess the director wants viewers to make their own conclusion.
The ending was not surprising, it was inevitable. When people abandon all common sense and decency just to be part of an organization, this is what can happen. People get hurt, even die. For what? To wear some letters, throw parties? This film is not a critique of Black Greek Letter Organizations (Divine 9), no more than last year’s Sundance hit, Goat, which was actually based on a true story whereas Burning Sands is fiction, was a critique of Caucasian fraternities.
The purpose of this film in my opinion, was to show how hazing could have detrimental consequences and how the desire to be part of a group could greatly affect one’s judgement.
This film could have been so much better if there were better back stories for the pledges and the fraternity itself. Some characters seemed like unneeded additions, and the unresolved ending had me mad at first, but then I understood why the film ended like that. Some scenes were laughable because even regular people know that some of the stuff in the film, when the boys have to have sex with that jumpoff and when the pledges are seen talking and dancing with others at the frat party, probably do not happen the way it was portrayed in the film.
The message of the film was that hazing is bad. Duh. Yet I applaud the film maker for not making this into an after school special type flick. There was no happy ending, the story was unresolved which lets viewers make their own conclusions, even though we can get an idea of what happened next just from doing a few Google searches about hazing deaths.
I give this film 3 out of 5 stars.