In the opening scene of Burning Sands, six young African American men ride crammed into a station wagon driving down a nondescript, college town street. The young man riding shotgun rolls down the window and sticks his head out to spit. Another young man in the back seat tells him to stop doing that, because they don’t want to get pulled over by the police.
They fear being arrested for spitting out the window of their car.
The young men are beginning Hell Week for the fraternity they are pledging at their Historic Black College or University. Burning Sands follows the young men as they are physically, psychologically, and emotionally abused by the older young men in the frat. The film’s protagonist, Zurich (Trevor Jackson), is pledging the fraternity in part because his father failed to make it through Hell Week when he tried to pledge. Zurich is determined to succeed where his father failed. The mounting violence he and his fellow pledges suffer during the week weakens his resolve.
Qualifying these undergraduate, underground hazing rituals are Zurich’s interactions with a professor, Dr. Hughes (Alfre Woodard), who is teaching a section on the life and writings of Frederick Douglass. Douglass’ writings about struggle and reform and the cost and value of freedom serve as a moral framework for the film. In true college movie fashion, what Zurich is learning in class comments on his extracurricular activities. (I always wish I had been aware of this dynamic when I was in college, as it would have made my college years feel much more literary.)
“Without struggle, there is no progress,” Zurich, quoting Douglass, tells Dr. Hughes at one point. She replies with another Douglass quote: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Burning Sands pits those two maxims against one another. The hazing rituals are the struggle, but they are making broken men. Zurich has to learn to reconcile the two. (Zurich does reach a conclusion, presented in a paper, nonetheless, but the moment fails to land as I think it’s mean to.)
That’s not to suggest that Burning Sands is dry and academic though. The pledges do go through a form of hell, and the camera is right there with them, intimately involved in their tribulation. The fraternity members are imposing, abusive figures who seem to come out of nowhere at any time to further terrorize the pledges.
The members’ resolve breaks only once when, late at night in a forest where they are teaching the pledges a dance while beating on them with PVC pipes, a pair of police officers show us and forces the young men to their knees with their hands on their heads. Suddenly, all the young men are wide-eyed and fearful. All their bravado flees. As the hazing rituals the young men are going through teach them to be selfless members of the fraternity, the world itself has thoroughly hazed these young black men already. They submit to the police instantly.
That’s just one wrinkle about what it means to be a black man in America that’s folded into Burning Sands. The legacy of slavery keeps coming up in their conversations. The example of older black men is essential to how these young men see themselves. Black women are used and abused by the young men, and they assert themselves out of necessity, since the young men treat them with so little respect. The lure of athletic glory dangles in front of some of them. Religion is a force in some of their lives. Capitulation to violence is a huge part of this story. The rival frats are even depicted as rival gangs. There’s a lot here. Maybe too much.
Or maybe this story just isn’t meant for me. Maybe Burning Sands is so true to the culture of its setting, a culture I am foreign too, I was unable to understand everything that was going on in this movie. I’ve done my best in this review to present all that I saw. I’m jut not sure what to make of it.