When it comes to the Divine Nine — the nickname given to America’s nine historically black fraternities and sororities — people tend to see a glorious legacy. It’s easy to understand why: At the start of the 20th century, when racial discrimination plagued black communities, blacks created these groups to fuel black excellence and kinship through leadership and service. That divine history still has its appeal—who wouldn’t want to become part of a decades-long (or even a century-long) legacy of black self-preservation? Yet in the new movie Burning Sands, director Gerard McMurray shows us the darker side of fraternities: terror in the name of brotherhood.
McMurray was on the team that produced the critically acclaimed 2013 movie Fruitvale Station, which chronicles the true story of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black Bay Area resident, on the day a police officer shot and killed him back in 2009. Like Fruitvale Station, Burning Sands draws much of its gritty mood from the sometimes sinister realities of being black in America. McMurray’s latest takes as its central theme the complex horrors of underground hazing done, in this case, among black fraternities, an experience rarely explored on the big screen.
Burning Sands follows Zurich (Trevor Jackson), an undergraduate at the fictional Frederick Douglass University trying to survive Hell Week as a pledge to Lambda Phi fraternity. From the movie’s first moments, McMurray makes clear that Zurich’s motivation for this journey is all about the brotherhood — “a feeling, something to strive for, be proud of” — or that he thinks it will be, at least. While Zurich’s desire for lifelong fraternity pushes him to pledge Lambda Phi, his line brothers have their own motivations.
Square (DeRon Horton), for instance — small of stature and an outsider — sees Lambda Phi as a means to be “a man” and to command respect on campus. “I’m not pledging for what I can get after school,” he tells Zurich after a night of hazing. “I’m pledging for what I can get now.” A Lambda Phi party gives us a glimpse of what Square sees on the other side of the “burning sands” of initiation. As he and the other pledges make their way into the party, Crime Mob’s 2004 track “Knuck If You Buck” begins to play. The song — an anthem, really — isn’t so much about fighting as it is about asserting oneself and reclaiming power: “I’m through with you haters, so watch what you do / You talkin’ ‘bout me, then I’m talkin’ to you.” For a standard-issue geek like Square, joining Lambda Phi could mean gaining control over his own frat fiefdom.
Burning Sands succeeds at peeling back another layer of college life and young adulthood, one that’s distinctly black — and, while harrowing, it’s also refreshing.
Over the film’s 102 minutes, McMurray investigates the competing reasons why these young men strive so hard for the glory that allegedly waits for them if they survive pledging. Given his focus on how the Lambda Phi pledges suffer (and how they inflict suffering on each other), it’s obvious that McMurray is looking askance at the process. There’s an unsurprising, though still horrifying, death toward the end of the movie, amid a maelstrom of brutal beatings on Hell Night. Zurich, reeling, asks: “Has this happened before?” He doesn’t get an answer — in a frenzy, one of the older fraternity brothers snaps at Zurich to dump the body in front of a hospital — but he doesn’t need one. Wordlessly, McMurray lets the audience know that what has happened isn’t new.
McMurray distills a compelling drama from Zurich’s journey, a cutting yet loving reassessment of how we think about black masculinity. But Burning Sands isn’t without its missteps. Throughout the movie, McMurray inserts little history lessons that suggest some of the brothers of Lambda Phi might merely be re-enacting methods that white slave owners used to tame their black property. (“They gave you that slave beat-down,” one of Zurich’s line brothers says to him after a round of paddling.) The result, while well-intentioned, comes across as a clumsy and tiresomely obvious way to make an otherwise good point by jamming too much into the dialogue. Same goes for the movie’s constant references to Frederick Douglass, whose sage prose comes up both in Zurich’s classes and in his own voiceover narration.
What’s more, the movie has kicked up criticism over its bleak rendering of black Greek life. Divine Nine members, writing at The Root, argue that the movie plays on “a stereotype of a fraternity based on the myths” — assumptions about debauchery and violence — held by “people who were never in fraternities and sororities.” (For the record, McMurray himself is a member of Omega Psi Phi, one of the Divine Nine.) This is an important criticism, particularly given that black students — and, more broadly, marginalized students and their allies — already face misconceptions about their school experiences, whether these schools are predominantly black or not. No need to fan the flames.
But Burning Sands succeeds at peeling back another layer of college life and young adulthood, one that’s distinctly black — and, while harrowing, it’s also refreshing. From John Landis’ classic National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1978 to Andrew Neel’s Goat just last year, the conventional cinematic vision of college campuses — like so many of those campuses themselves — has long been strikingly white. Here, with a stellar cast, including Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight) as cool older fraternity brother Fernander and Alfre Woodard as the wise Professor Hughes, Burning Sands radically expands the canon. And it leaves us with the uneasy truth that hazing can build solidarity among brothers almost as easily as it can break them apart.