×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Sundance Film Review: ‘Burning Sands’

Hazing is worse than boot camp for fraternity pledges at a fictional U.S. black university.

With:
Trevor Jackson, DeRon Horton, Tosin Cole, Malik Bazille, Octavius J. Johnson, Davyon S. Usaire, Mitchell Edwards, Nafessa Williams, Christian Robinson, Trevante Rhodes, Imani A. Hakim, Raquel Bianca John, Rotimi, Serayah, Alfre Woodard, Dominique Marie, Steve Harris.

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.

Sundance Film Review: 'Burning Sands'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 24, 2017. Running time: 102 MIN.

Production: A Netflix presentation of a Mandalay Pictures, Homegrown Pictures and Hudlin Entertainment production. (International sales: Netflix, Los Angeles.) Producers: Stephanie Allain, Jason Michael Berman, Reginald Hudlin, Mel Jones. Executive producers: Caroline Connor, Ian Bricke, Common, Derek Dudley, Shelby Stone, Funa Maduka, Gerard McMurray.

Crew: Director: Gerard McMurray. Screenplay: Christine Berg, McMurray. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Isiah Donte Lee. Editor: Evan Schrodek. Music: Kevin Lax.

With: Trevor Jackson, DeRon Horton, Tosin Cole, Malik Bazille, Octavius J. Johnson, Davyon S. Usaire, Mitchell Edwards, Nafessa Williams, Christian Robinson, Trevante Rhodes, Imani A. Hakim, Raquel Bianca John, Rotimi, Serayah, Alfre Woodard, Dominique Marie, Steve Harris.

More Film

  • Aladdin

    'Aladdin' Dominates International Box Office With $121 Million

    Disney’s “Aladdin” is showing plenty of worldwide drawing power with $121 million overseas for the weekend, opening in first place in nearly all international markets. The reboot of the 1992 animated classic has received strong family attendance with a significant gain on Saturday and Sunday. China leads the way with an estimated $18.7 million for [...]

  • Aladdin

    Box Office: 'Aladdin' Taking Flight With $105 Million in North America

    Disney’s live-action “Aladdin” is flying high with an estimated $105 million in North America during the four-day Memorial Day holiday weekend. It’s the sixth-highest Memorial Day weekend total ever, topping the 2011 mark of $103.4 million for “The Hangover Part II.” The top total came in 2007, when “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” [...]

  • Agustina San Martin Talks Cannes Special

    Agustina San Martin Talks Cannes Special Mention Winner ‘Monster God’

    CANNES – An exploration of the ramifications of God, “Monster God,” from Argentina’s Agustina San Martín, took a Special Mention – an effective runner’s up prize – on Saturday night at this year’s Cannes Film Festival short film competition. It’s not difficult to see why, especially when jury president Claire Denis own films’ power resists [...]

  • Atlantics

    Netflix Snags Worldwide Rights to Cannes Winners 'Atlantics,' 'I Lost My Body'

    Mati Diop’s feature directorial debut “Atlantics” and Jérémy Clapin’s animated favorite “I Lost My Body” have both been acquired by Netflix following wins at Cannes Film Festival. “Atlantics” was awarded the grand prix while “I Lost My Body” was voted the best film at the independent International Critics Week. The deals are for worldwide rights [...]

  • Stan Lee, left, and Keya Morgan

    Stan Lee's Former Business Manager Arrested on Elder Abuse Charges

    Stan Lee’s former business manager, Keya Morgan, was arrested in Arizona Saturday morning on an outstanding warrant from the Los Angeles Police Department. The LAPD’s Mike Lopez confirmed that the arrest warrant was for the following charges: one count of false imprisonment – elder adult; three counts of grand theft from elder or dependent adult, [...]

  • Moby attends the LA premiere of

    Moby Apologizes to Natalie Portman Over Book Controversy

    Moby has issued an apology of sorts after writing in his recently published memoir “Then It Fell Apart” that he dated Natalie Portman when she was 20 — a claim the actress refuted. “As some time has passed I’ve realized that many of the criticisms leveled at me regarding my inclusion of Natalie in Then [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content