Fraternity life has a long history within the world of cinema. From the jovial silliness of “Animal House” to more somber, harrowing fare like “Goat,” the movie industry has often returned to the legendarily subversive practices of these collegiate staples to tell tales that feed the culture’s fascination with the institution.
Now comes the original Netflix production “Burning Sands,” which is the latest incarnation of this well-established sub-genre. Unfortunately for the filmmakers and the movie’s talented cast, it does not quite earn its place at the table alongside the best that the genre has to offer.
The film stars Trevor Jackson as Zurich, a bright, talented student at a fictional HBCU called Frederick Douglass University. Seeking to follow in his father’s and mentor’s footsteps and join their prestigious fraternity, he becomes one of six pledges vying for a spot in Lambda Phi, one of the oldest frats on campus.
In order to join the ranks of his father and Dean Richardson (Steve Harris), he has to survive “Hell Week,” a week-long series of hazing and assorted physical challenges to test his loyalty to the fraternity.
Some of the challenges are benign, like fast food runs and learning the four tenets of the fraternity — “Leadership,” “Scholarship,” “Companionship,” and “Brotherhood.” Others are more disturbing like having a metal rod run over the bottom of one’s foot or being slapped, pushed or spit upon when one gets an answer wrong about the history of the fraternity.
He is aware of the physical and emotional toll the process will take on him, but in the beginning he shakes off the early signs of trouble. His equally studious girlfriend Rochon (Imani Hakim) begins noticing troubling signals as Zurich is slowly becoming more indifferent toward his classwork and has strange injuries on his ribs.
His professor (played by Alfre Woodard, who the film, unfortunately, underutilizes) sees the potential in Zurich and encourages him to open up about his withdrawn behavior in class.
Due to the relative darkness of its depiction of its familiar material, it’s obvious from the start that “Burning Sands” has to follow a specific trajectory: wide-eyed optimism about joining the fraternity, followed by doubt, followed by reinvestment in the process, followed by denial and, finally, disillusionment.
He eventually realizes that there is something seriously wrong with this fraternity’s hazing practices, but since it takes Zurich about an hour longer than it does us, the film loses much of its intended impact.
One of the key problems with the film is the fact that it never really gives Zurich a compelling reason to endure the torment of the initiation beyond deference for his father and mentor. The film needed to show more of the allure of the fraternity.
Why do these guys go through this torture? It certainly isn’t just to stomp shirtless in a line while yelling: “Whooooooo!” What does Zurich stand to gain from initiation and loose from failure? The movie is very vague about it.
The film also doesn’t do a great job of declaring a position on the subject of fraternity hazing. It clearly seems to be making an argument against it, as the fairly bleak ending seems to suggest, but it never really forms a crystalized message.
A few scenes before the ending when Zurich has become completely disillusioned with the process, we begin to expect a full repudiation of the fraternity. His confrontation with his dean, his initial blowing off of his fellow pledgers and somewhat hammy speech about “King’s” appear to suggest that he is finally ready to move on from the fraternity. But then he winds up attending the final night of “Hell Night” anyway.
Why? The film doesn’t seem to know and we’re left with a truly muddled message. We are forced to fill in the blanks for the narrative.
This film fails to bring anything new to an already pretty crowded table on fraternity life. If it had better focus of its message and shown more of Zurich’s inner conflict, it would have been a soaring success.