Gerard McMurray lifts the lid on the unspoken violence that takes place on University Campuses during the fraternity pledging process in Netflix's Burning Sands. It’s a sensitive subject designed to open up conversation about the brutality that is so often either ignored or just accepted as part and parcel of these young men’s journey into manhood. Greek letter organisations are an intrinsic part of university life in America, although their brutal initiation procedures can easily be found in any number of covert all-male societies and associations.
Zurich (Trevor Jackson) is our guide into the heart of the frat, a freshman about to enter into Hell Week. That title alone tells you pretty much everything you need to know about what the next seven days will hold in store. Along with four other young men, Zurich attempts to tough out the intimidating hazing humiliations so he can reap the benefits of senior membership. If that means eating dog food, taking vicious beatings or being summoned at any time to serve the senior members, then so be it. As the intensity of the week increases, the relationship with his girlfriend Rochon (Imani Hakim) feels the strain, and the level of his academic work noticeably drops.
Set in the fictional all-black Frederick Douglass University, McMurray links together this abuse with the history of slavery, although far too tenuously to have any sort of a dramatic impact on the narrative. The power lines are marked out from the University’s principle (also a member) to the masters, the freshman and the police, whose authority can bring any of these students to their knees, regardless of their university status. That this is an all-black university isn’t enough to feel the weight of an issue the director wants to discuss without managing to join the dots.
The moments of violence really do stand out, in particular a later sequence that cleverly manages to subvert expectations of where the story may be heading. It also successfully underlines how aggression is so often responsible for shaping male masculinity, before they leave education and head out into the wider world to become successful doctors, lawyers and businessmen. "Leadership, scholarship, compassion and brotherhood” is one of the many mantras they are forced to recite out loud; qualities derived from their shared experience of suffering.
What the script never offers is a way to understand the seniors inflicting this onto the freshmen. This is a cycle that has moved from one generation to the next, each one flexing their superiority onto the next batch of inductees. Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight) appears as Fernander, one of the slightly more sympathetic leaders but there is still no motivation given as to why they feel the need to uphold these rituals. They remain forgettable bad guys trying to break these boys mentally and physically, and the four young men around Zurich feel just as two dimensional. One side is inflicting the pain, the other receiving, yet the dynamic of this relationship goes far beyond the physical injuries.
Trevor Jackson does a solid enough job in the lead role and the supporting cast, which includes Alfre Woodard, all play their parts well. The key is really getting into the heads of both victim and perpetrator which McMurray and co-writer Christine Berg's script never allows you to do. So while we can see the literal suffering being inflicted, the unseen psychological scars remain elusive. More purposeful character development could well have helped resolve that, and ultimately McMurray’s film doesn’t ask the sort of testing questions a topic like this deserves.
At times intense without ever really catching fire.