The movie everyone seems to be talking about as of lately is Gerard McMurray’s independent film Burning Sands. Now if that name sounds vaguely familiar that’s because he was one of the forces behind the 2013 biography Fruitvale Station starring Michael B. Jordan. A movie that retails the unfortunate story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old African American Bay Area resident, who was fatally shot in the early morning hours of New Year's Day 2009 by BART Police officer. McMurray himself a member of Howard University’s Omega Psi Phi’s Alpha Chapter.
Burning Sands initially premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January earlier this year before being bought and advertised by Netflix as a Netflix Original. That same month rapper Common boarded the film as executive producer and even penned an original song for it. Burning Sands marks McMurray’s feature debut as writer, producer, and director. He was inspired to create the film after student Robert Champion died in the band at Florida A&M University after being hazed and beaten to death in 2011 on hopes to bring awareness to the brutality and nasty practices going on unnoticed/not talked about.
The film centers on a pledge named Zurich, played by Trevor Jackson (American Crime), who goes through an inner debate within himself on whether he should keep his code of silence or speak out on the extreme underground hazing being done to him and his fellow pledges as they venture into their fifth and final week, Hell Week. Throughout the film Zurich and his fellow initiates endure numerous “trials” assigned by their “Big Brothers” that lead up to the deadly “Hell Night”.
Many of the negative reviews can be summarized into three grand questions. First, why would someone, especially a Divine 9 member himself, portray HBCUs and fraternities in such a negative light? Second, is any of this even realistic? Lastly, why do the boys, or anyone else for that matter, bother to put up with it all? Now I can’t speak for anyone or any group in particular but based on this movie I can take a crack at it.
Why Shine Such A Negative Light On HBCUs/Greek Life?
One of the things I enjoyed about this film was the authenticity of a HBCU and its students. Not everyone is rolling in dough and good grades aren’t just falling in people's laps. From the heated classroom discussions, to the house parties, to even the music being played (Knuck If You Buck & Down For My Hittas are HBCU essentials) add a surprisingly positive layer to the film that only an actual HBCU student could capture. The film also never specifically says Greek Life is bad. While simply showcasing a single chapter of a fraternity that has no doubt lost its way, it also gives small glimpses of the perks/positives that come with Greek Life. One of the biggest examples comes in a scene where the current hopefuls are told to contact their Big Brothers who have already crossed, graduated, and now live successfully within their chosen career paths. From a Football player to a Doctor completing his residency, each give their respective pledge words of encouragement and something to strive for (Pre-Med student Zurich’s big brother Malcolm even offers to write a recommendation once the former crosses).
Surprisingly enough, this question seems to be raised almost every time a HBCU is the center of any show/movie (i.e. BET’s The Quad). I have come to the conclusion that, while these shows do address tough issues, they are necessary in order for awareness to be made. However, the true issue comes from the imbalance of positive portrayals. Take the hit show, A Different World, for example; while it did touch on dark and/or tough situations such as rape, racism and domestic violence, it also showcased Black excellence and empowerment that, in response, increased the interest and attendance of HBCUs. This is what we are missing in the media today.
Is This Even Realistic?
There have been multiple accounts of different forms of hazing. The most common being: Snipe Hunts, Spanking, Servitude, Markings, Submission and more (all of which were illustrated in the movie). Hazing is seen in many different types of social groups, including gangs, sports teams, schools, military units, and fraternities and sororities (both Black & White). The initiation rites can range from relatively benign pranks, to protracted patterns of behavior that rise to the level of abuse or criminal misconduct. There have been more than 170 suspected hazing-related incidents that have led to student deaths in the United States since the 1800s, according to research by the author Hank Nuwer, who wrote the book "Wrong of Passage: Fraternities, Sororities, Hazing and Binge Drinking." Due to the nature of hazing, the secretive nature of Greek letter organizations, and the fear of negative repercussions, hazing is largely under reported. Most, if not all, hazing activities take place either during pledge (or “interest”) activities or rituals, which are almost always secretive. So, even though it may not have happened within specific chapters, to say that it simply doesn’t happen is completely false. However, unless the code of silence is broken, only one side of the tale will be expressed and will ultimately become the truth to those on the outside.
Why Bother To Go Through It All?
While not all the characters reveal their motivation to join, plenty of them do and it is enough to infer the true motivation behind most, if not all, pledges.
One of Zurich’s fellow line brothers Frank (Tosin Cole) is considered a Legacy. In Greek terms this means his Father and perhaps his Grandfather (in this case both) are both full fledged members of the Frat. In some traditions a “legacy” has a guaranteed spot within the frat once he pledges however, in other traditions, a “legacy” is actually given a harder time due to the assumption of the former (which is indeed the sad case for Frank). Regardless, Frank and other Legacies are placed under immense pressure from both The Frat and his family to keep up the tradition and meet everyone’s expectations.
Another line brother whom everyone refers to as simply Square (DeRon Horton), comes from a much different lifestyle than the rest of the boys. He comes from a wealthy family in the Midwest and is very nerdy in both appearance and attitude. In a scene where Zurich verbally expresses his uneasiness for the first time, Square grows annoyed and asks whether he even knew his name before revealing his motivation for pledging: to gain respect and recognition, which will no doubt come once he gains letters.
Now for Zurich it is a bit more complicated, When specifically asked by Big Brother Edwin (Rotimi) why he wanted to join, Zurich can’t seem to think of anything except “Brotherhood”. However, in his opening monologue as he sets the scene for the audience. He reveals that his father initially pledged during his time at college but dropped line. His father also calls him numerous times throughout the movie all of which Zurich ignores; which leads viewers to believe that Zurich is now trying to finish what his father started and prove himself a stronger, better man. However, throughout the film it becomes apparent that not only is he trying to prove something to his father but also his Professor (Alfre Woodard), who is aware of what is happening and urges Zurich to be a leader and reach his full potential, the school’s Dean (Steve Harris) who personally recommends Zurich to join his fraternity and constantly pushes him to “earn his spot” and warns him to “not make me look bad”, and ultimately himself.
While all of the guys come from different lifestyles and have different motivations on the surface, they all have one huge thing in common. Each and everyone of the guys are looking for acceptance in some way, shape or form. Something that ultimately everyone deals with especially at that age and it is safe to say that we don't always look for it in the right places. But with the prospect of joining a long line of legends and having such a vast network, hazing may be viewed as simply a small obstacle to reach the end.
The Real Questions
What should really be focused on are the intriguing parallels and contradictions placed throughout the movie. While what is being shown on the surface is definitely something to be considered and brought to awareness, the true questions we should be asking ourselves are brilliantly and subtly placed throughout the movie. The true beauty is what is being shown instead of specifically told.
At one point in the film Zurich recites a quote by Frederick Douglas that is used to motivate him throughout his pledging. “If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” he tells himself. However, he is soon contrasted with his concerned Professor Hughes’s favorite Douglass quote: “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”, after she notices his physical wounds courtesy of initiation.
But the greatest not so hidden treasure of the movie comes from an early on assignment that includes a debate about the Willie Lynch letter; a letter detailing how white Slave owners would break down Black slaves physically, mentally, and spiritually in order to get them to be the stereotypical slave. While the class simply has a heated discussion over the authenticity of the document it is interesting to note the uncanny parallels between the above and the entire practice of hazing (which in this case involved Blacks breaking down fellow Blacks). Even further, it is revealed that Zurich didn't even read it adding to the concept of knowing one's history and what to fight and stand for.
While there are a few questionable moves made here and there, overall, Burning Sands is definitely a film worth watching from the scenery, to the wonderful cast, to the story as a whole.