Burning Sands (2017)


Burning Sands is a 2017 American drama film, directed by Gerard McMurray, from a screenplay by McMurray and Christine Berg. It stars Trevor Jackson, Alfre Woodard, Steve Harris, Tosin Cole, DeRon Horton and Trevante Rhodes.

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“Burning Sands’” has a lot of storytelling energy and ideas, if less narrative finesse. Sometimes things just lurch from one sequence to another, with insufficient attention to building momentum toward major plot points. The faculty roles (and dialogue) are schematic; ditto the recurring use of Frederick Douglass quotes to underline what the film is otherwise reluctant to say out loud, i.e. that such ritualized abuse is all too uncomfortably reminiscent of slavery’s own institutionalized degradation.

Burning Sands takes you on a raw, voyeuristic journey of fraternity pledging through the eyes of one favored pledgee, who is torn between honoring a code of silence or standing up against the intensifying violence of underground hazing. Led by a breakthrough performance by Trevor Jackson, director Gerard McMurray’s feature directorial debut brings an emotional honesty to the classic tale of “rites of passage” and the complicated bonds of brotherhood.

The price paid for elite brotherhood is awfully high in “Burning Sands,” which chronicles fraternity pledges’ survival — or otherwise — of a particularly brutal hazing process at an all-black university. Director/co-scenarist Gerard McMurray’s debut isn’t as striking a treatment of the same theme as last year’s divisive “Goat,” a film that went out of its way to stir viewer outrage by being as stripped-down and unpleasant as possible. This is a more conventional effort on nearly all levels, with room for some titillation, comedy relief, and other escape valves. But that might well translate into a wider audience for this flawed yet confident and polished Netflix drama, which arrives at the same conclusion as the earlier film: Hazing is a very bad thing.

You send your kid to school, any school, you don’t expect them to go through anything where their life would be at stake. Overall, I want people to be able to challenge things and not just go with it. In a situation like this , a lot of people ended up hurting. I teach film students and some of them went through processes where nobody would have a clear answer for why they were doing certain things.

“Burning Sands,” Gerald McMurray’s feature filmmaking debut, is one of the fresher entries, thanks mainly to its setting: a historically black fraternity on a historically black campus like Howard, the university where the co-writer and director got his degree. Spike Lee’s second feature “School Daze” had a subplot set in a black frat and showcased a lot of hazing, but the scenes were played mainly for very grim laughs. “Sands” presents itself in trailers as a comedy along those lines, but it’s no joke. McMurray’s strongest virtue is his ability to thread that comedy-drama needle while he tells the story of Zurich (Trevor Jackson), aka Z, into Lambda Phi, a prestigious Greek organization once attended by the school’s dean (Steve Harris), who proposes the young man for membership.

Not that there aren’t tortures in “Burning Sands.” On the contrary, most of the film’s action revolves around a beat down of some kind. But don’t expect creative torments for your voyeuristic pleasure, if you’re into that sort of thing. In their quest to cross the “Burning Sands” of hell week, Zurich and his brothers endure lots of barks and plenty of bites. There’s punching spitting, paddling, drinking, demanding, and belittling. In short, the punishment is cruel but not unusual.

Each individual needs to be a free thinker. Nothing is wrong with being a part of an organization or group. Our organizations are very important in this country period. Especially in particular, for black men. We need them but, I challenge people to not be like a sheep and follow everybody and to be able to form opinions about any type of process. In this time period, in this country, we should challenge things and think about things outside of the box. We don’t have to just follow the norms or traditions.

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Brotherhood being the film’s main concern, its female characters are few, but a little fierce. Though he paints them in broad brushstrokes, McMurray successfully avoids stereotypes. And if they all have to be sexualized (save for Woodard), at least they have agency. His girlfriend, Rochon (Imani Hakim), is the least interesting, but the relationship is sweet. Brainy Angel (Seraya of ABC’s “Empire”) challenges Zurich intellectually in an underdeveloped plot line. Most intriguing is Toya (Nafessa Williams), a local girl who surprises Zurich with her vocabulary and unabashed love of sex.

Still, given that many of the major collaborators here are making their feature debut, you can’t blame them for erring on the side of caution, with slickly mainstream contributions admirably pulled off on a limited budget. While for obvious reasons the unnamed black college here is fictional, “Burning Sands” was shot on campuses and other locations in Virginia.

Burning Sands konnte bislang 85 Prozent der Kritiker bei Rotten Tomatoes überzeugen. So sagt Dennis Harvey von Variety, die gelegentlich tollpatschigen oder schwerfälligen Elemente beeinträchtigten den Film nicht, dessen Übermut, talentierte Besetzung und schrecklich faszinierender Stoff durchweg unterhaltsam seien, auch wenn dieser selten wirklich überrasche.

Title:Burning Sands
Runtime:105 min.
Stars:Trevor Jackson, Alfre Woodard, Steve Harris, Tosin Cole, DeRon Horton, Trevante Rhodes

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