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.
Despite the fact that a series of high-profile scandals and lawsuits have resulted in hazing being banned from most campuses, the practice continues — and arguably has gotten even worse for having been pushed underground. (It’s a rare year now when there aren’t multiple U.S. hazing deaths, often from extreme alcohol poisoning, notably, one kind of abuse not portrayed here.)
Certainly the secrecy that surrounds now essentially illegal activities only seems to increase the no-holds-barred nature of the punishment dealt to those “mutts” seeking to join Lambda Phi fraternity during three weeks’ hazing leading up to Hell Night. The pledges’ reward is not just social acceptance but a presumed lifetime of “leadership, scholarship, compassion, and brotherhood” among well-connected graduates who ran the same gauntlet.
That future sounds very good to premed student Zurich, aka Z (Trevor Jackson), whose father dropped out of a frat, and who feels compelled to finish what dad couldn’t. But it takes a giant effort of will to do so. At the start, the six freshmen drive out to a forest in the middle of a freezing night. There, brothers-to-be put them through paces so flat-out sadistic that Z suffers what turns out to be a fractured rib. When one of his fellow inductees tries to intervene, he’s summarily tossed out. So now they are five.
Classes are in session, but Lambda Phi is unrelenting in its demands of the newbies, which means they neglect practically everything except for the frat’s deliberately pointless whims. Not taking Z’s neglect lightly are a history professor (Alfre Woodard) who realizes his failing grades aren’t due to lack of intelligence, and a girlfriend (Imani Hakim) who likewise thinks his priorities are mixed up. On the other hand, encouraging him to stick with the Greek program is the college dean (Steve Harris), though the latter may not realize how vicious hazing has grown since he himself was a pledge.
Beyond three or four principal figures, there’s not a lot of room for characters to have their own arcs, achieve much depth, or in some cases even be individually identifiable within a crowded cast . Among subsidiary figures who do make at least a passing impression are bright, aggressive student Angel (Serayah), highly sexed local fast-food employee Toya (Nafessa Williams), Lambda president Edwin (Rotimi) and meanest frat bro Big C (Christian Robinson).
“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.
Still, the occasional heavy-handed or clumsy elements don’t seriously impair a film whose high spirits, talented cast and luridly intriguing subject consistently entertain, even if they seldom truly surprise. The straightforward visual assembly is bright and functional, rather than stylish, in Isiah Donte Lee’s widescreen lensing. Though there are plenty of various tracks deployed, the pic could’ve used a less conventional original score than Kevin Lax provides.
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.