Originally published on July 25th, 2017
I pledged to the Nu Theta Chapter of the Chi Phi Fraternity at the College of William & Mary close to four years ago now, but I still remember much of it as if it weren’t as long ago. I was one of three guys in my semester’s pledge class, the other two guys were transfers – in fact, one of them just got married two and a half weekends ago. I remember us having to do things like switching off door duty at parties and taking pop quizzes about, for example, the basics of the fraternity and what every Greek letter meant.
Let’s put it this way: the worst thing I ever had to do with my fellow pledges was build the most disgusting Wawa sandwich imaginable and then stuff it into a magnum condom while on a scavenger hunt. I didn’t have to worry about the escalated hazing depicted in Gerard McMurray’s drama Burning Sands, a film about five college students going through hell week to enter the ranks of an historic, prestigious fraternity.
The film features a lot of typical fraternity pledging traits that have been recognizable since National Lampoon’s Animal House, but often depicted lightheartedly. Paddling, enduring constant verbal abuse, guzzling down large water jugs – you know, the usual tactics elders use to get a pledge to break. Thankfully, looking at these tropes with a more realistic eye is a man who was in a fraternity himself. McMurray is still a member of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, one of nine historically Black Greek organizations part of the ‘Divine 9,’ and his steady, even meditative direction keeps his material grounded without resorting to outlandish stretches.
His matter-of-fact approach doesn’t engender much subtlety in how he goes about treating each scene and the sum of their parts. He often does well to create an intense subjective experience that allows us to tag along for the ride. A number of college film clichés may arise along the way, but it’s involving nonetheless, which is a good sign considering McMurray stated that he hopes the film starts a conversation not just about the dangers of hazing, but also ensuring Black Greek organizations remain an integral part of campus communities across the country.
He’s caused a bit of a stir along the way, but if he gets his message out, then hey, all publicity is good publicity. And in fact, those cinematic clichés are quite welcome here to an extent, as their familiarity to us in connection to mostly white depictions of college and frats also helps this film skillfully avoid stereotypes about HBCUs and Black Greek culture. As McMurray puts it, “We’ve seen so many stories about Black men as drug dealers, pimps, junkies – I came from a place where I want to change the narrative of Black men in films. We can be in college, we can be lawyers, we can be doctors. It doesn’t have to be anything stereotypical.”
Though the lack of nuance among most of the brothers committing the hazing and how these events are depicted may seem disappointing at first, maybe that was the point given McMurray’s intent. Though the film is often times propped up by convention, all the way to its predictable conclusion, it’s buoyed by an uncompromising, perhaps unexpected pessimism in spite of the subject matter. McMurray quite effectively performs the opposite of glorification, and sometimes uses administrative figures and alumni, as well as the pledges themselves, to underscore the unfortunate normality of the acts done; “Humiliation builds humility,” as the university’s Dean tells a prospective pledge.
And in the end, though the film offers no solutions regarding this problem, you get the sense that was purposeful. McMurray won’t just give us one because if there is to be an answer that can help this problem go away for good, amongst all Greek organizations predominantly white, black or otherwise, then we have to come together to find one.
Burning Sands wears the familiarity of college life clichés on its sleeve, but still is a well-acted drama – seriously, Trevante Rhodes has such a bright future ahead of him – that uses such common knowledge to its advantage. In many ways, it is an essential film to watch for current and prospective students wherever they study. It may anger those part of Greek life – like it has – and give those who are anti-Greek the proper ammunition to justify their bias, but if both sides can approach McMurray’s film with an open mind, then maybe a proper dialogue can start.
Much of the information within this review was found in this article on Ebony: http://www.ebony.com/entertainment-culture/burning-sands-gerard-mcmurray#axzz4nxshkmlN