The problem with Burning Sands may actually not lie with the movie itself, but rather the interpretation of these obscene events and the awareness of the historically black college campus culture. The film depicts hazing as pledging all too often in the film with “Lamda Lamda Phi” fraternity chants. You may find you know more about these kind of ruthless rituals in the US than you realize. In perspective of real events (though this is fictional in its outlay), this may sit better with its audience than had it been a stereotypical black brotherhood movie that could join the lists of empowering movies about those misrepresented in Hollywood. But let’s not get carried away. Nor do I fancy tipping over into critical territory that would leave me open to racial allegations, journalistically speaking. This is no Moonlight (though Trevante Rhodes is here). Or Boyz N The Hood for that matter. You could also push ethnic culture aside, and find Burning Sands could well have more in common with the likes of Whiplash or Full Metal Jacket.
The film’s story and emotive-thread is simply. This has complexity pulsing through its veins, a certain nervous tension yo-yos through the narrative, but focuses centrally on the very real American problem of outlandish challenges and structured ordeals that come with the commitment to enduring “hell week” pledge trials. The main character Zurich and his buddies enroll in what can only be described in the movie’s opening scene as football boot camp. There is little sportsmanship here though, as students are tormented to an inch of their tolerance, have their ribs bashed over and over, forced to eat food from a bowl on the floor like dogs. All the while pounding their chests and willing their unimaginable inner strength to keep standing, fighting, to survive. Not a lot else happens, and although not full to the brim with torturous social agenda, the film strolls towards the inevitability of a rather gut-stopping conclusion.
Recently released on the Netflix platform, Burning Sands premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Co-written with Christine Berg, this is the feature debut from Gerard McMurray, who produced Fruitvale Station, a film with similar importance, but one which had far greater urgency and impact than this. It’s not a bad film, and will appeal to many, for sure the direction of the campus scenes, the solidarity, the bonding, have a very true to life feel. And the atmosphere, and why-would-they-do-this mentality, troubles you as a viewer, whether this impact is positive will split opinions.
Some of the negatives may come when you have to question your own level of compelment in comparison to the seemingly idle references to black slavery, or when the endurous events seem bewildering and ridiculous rather than stomach-churning and powerful. There is a genuine tense aura as the film heads to its end, the haunting hum of the music, and the vivid cinematography by Isiah Donté Lee – at times just letting the camera watch. See it with an open mind and an eye for the true dilemma for US students, even if perhaps on this occasion it promises more than it can give. And perhaps allow yourself a double feature with Andrew Neel’s Goat.