'Burning Sands': Film Review | Sundance 2017

A predictable yarn about the perils of hazing.

Gerard McMurray's drama, which will be available on Netflix in March, centers on frat hazing at an all-black college.

Burning Sands is a workmanlike but unavoidably predictable yarn about the perils of college fraternity hazing. The fact that, this time, the setting is an all-black school really doesn’t change anything, as this kind of story can only really have one possible trajectory: Gung-ho young men embrace the spirit of the institution, go all out and then too far, resulting in tragedy from excess zeal. But the drama’s intensity, and the novelty of the context, will be enough to draw viewers to this Netflix presentation upon its March 10 debut.

Set during Hell Week, when aspiring inductees are put through the wringer by their superiors to earn the right to join the fraternity at (fictional) all-black Frederick Douglass University, the script by first-time screenwriters Christine Berg and director Gerard McMurray dives right in to demonstrate how the brutal drill instructors rough up the candidates. After severe beatings, one young man is kicked out, leaving five aspirants to face daily assaults while simultaneously trying to pursue their academic and personal lives.

Frustratingly, the script makes no effort to differentiate these game young men as individuals; we know nothing about their backgrounds, what their interests are and why, individually, each one decided that Greek life was important enough to subject himself to the ordeal he's embarking upon.

This is only marginally less true of the nominal lead, the oddly named Zurich (Trevor Jackson), a tall, handsome and serious young man who has a steady girlfriend and, under the benign auspices of a professor (Alfre Woodard, in a role only slightly bigger than a cameo), takes an interest in learning about the school’s namesake.

Each day presents a new challenge, although there is always the spectacle of the drill masters yelling at their charges, calling them the N-word all the time, beating and slamming them to within an inch of serious injury and, in Zurich’s case, more than that: He suffers a fractured rib that would take weeks to heal, but he hides it and hopes for the best.

One of the script’s few humorous inventions has the five guys individually commanded to copulate with a self-described sex-loving co-ed. Zurich protests that he won’t cheat on his girlfriend, and how he slithers out of it does provide a couple of laughs.

As the hours before Hell Night count down, Zurich realizes he has a term paper due. So the young man just bangs out a commentary on Frederick Douglass, all neatly typed, and hands it in before heading out, broken bone and all, to be pounded, tormented, humiliated, forced to eat dog food and so much more, for the privilege of joining the august society. Needless to say, all does not end well.

First-time director McMurray, who worked as an associate producer on Fruitvale Station, does a decent job of staging the action and maintaining viewer attention on the straight-line story. But there’s no subtext, investigation of his characters’ various stories or motivations for doing what they’re doing. It’s a very shallow film.

As the only actor asked to do anything but the obvious, Jackson exudes some undeniable charisma and has a tendency, like method actors of yore, to posture a bit, retreat within and make the viewer follow him there. Future films will no doubt provide a more comprehensive sense of his talents.

Production companies: Mandalay Pictures, Homegrown Pictures, Hudlin Entertainment
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Trevor Jackson, Tosin Cole, DeRon Horton, Trevante Rhodes, Rotini, Octavius J. Johnson, Mitchell Edwards, Malik Bazille, Imani Hakim, Nafessa Williams, Steve Harris, Alfre Woodard
Director: Gerard McMurray
Screenwriters: Christine Berg, Gerard McMurray
Producers: Stephanie Allain, Jason Michael Berman, Reginald Hudlin, Mel Jones
Executive producers: Caroline Connor, Common, Gerard McMurray
Director of photography: Isiah Donte Lee
Production designer: Erik Louis Robert
Costume designer: Roland Sanchez
Editor: Evan Schrodek
Music: Kevin Lax
Casting: Kim Coleman
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

No MPAA rating, 101 minutes