Whether by alcohol poisoning or orders which see pledges undertake activities that are simply inhumane and a real danger to life, hazing has been a cause of multiple deaths over the decades. The initiation process of becoming part of a fraternity in America is often a gruelling one and has seen a shocking number of people lose their lives in being forced to proceed with these tasks of sheer brutality. America now sees 44 of its 50 states having enforced laws against such activity but each year there is at least one death caused by this brutal of procedures. With last year’s Goat tackling the issue head-on, Netflix’s latest release, Burning Sands, takes the opportunity to represent such fraternity rules and hammers it home with an all-black cast.
Zurich (Trevor Jackson) and his friends have a week to prove that they are worthy of becoming full-blown fraternity brothers as they embark on ‘Hell Week’, with the evenings bringing a wide range of tormenting tasks that will test their mettle and breaking point. Z is a regular student whose fixation on flourishing from a pledge soon overcomes him and, along with his friends, he looks to sacrifice all to reach that all-important finish line and success.
As ‘Hell Night’ approaches, Z soon finds that fraternity promotion comes at a huge cost, with his girlfriend reeling from his fixation on the task at hand, sever injuries hampering his everyday ability and tensions between his friends heightening in their determination to stick through the ordeal as a unit. The fraternity brothers (including Moonlight‘s Trevante Rhodes) are ruthless, aggressive and unrelenting and could well break the friends before they reach their ultimate goal.
Burning Sands is another impressive example of Netflix’s regularly expanding catalogue of content. Joining the ever-growing movies of late that focus on African-American culture and individuals, Gerard McMurray’s film is a powerful and affecting experience that cuts open the core of fraternity culture and unleashes the terrors from within. Unflinching and aggressive, the film represents the darkest side of frats, showcasing some of the victims of torturous tasks and solidifying a strong message on this scary and dangerous culture.
Often in films the idea of fraternities is played our in comedic films, with the likes of Animal House, American Pie et al serving up the lighter and more alcohol-driven wasteland of initiation, but here we have a striking eye-opener fixated on an issue still so potent in American society. What also makes the film of particular note is the focus on black culture, with our core protagonists, Z especially, highlighted with a strong sense of vulnerability and helplessness, rather than the familiar template of gangland figures and violence. It makes for a refreshingly brutal experience and one that delivers a message on just how great an issue hazing still is in this day and age.
Helping to drive the film and its ultimate message, Trevor Jackson is a subtle and dependable leading man, perfectly representing a young man who is thrusting his body and soul into a status that will see him go above and beyond what his father couldn’t do in his shoes back in his college days. Jackson’s Z is tinged with innocence and instantly gains our appreciation for his honest and sincere approach to his girlfriend and indeed his friends. Here is an actor who is core to every scene within the movie and, despite having the option to back out at any point possible to save himself from this torture, still manages to maintain a positive emotional reaction from us as an audience.
As the film progresses it becomes evident that events are only going to take further turns for the worse and, at times, it can be difficult to watch, but ultimately Burning Sands needs to represent a beast of this nature to sell its message. For the most part it does this to great effect, with the lack of female focus often a slightly jarring distraction along the way, but this is soon improved upon with the focus on Z hitting the strongest of notes towards the film’s gripping finale.
Burning Sands is an important film that is often unrelenting and cutting in its presentation, but never looks to become over-bearing or exuberant with its overall message. Gerard McMurray has forged a superb film led by an incredible talent in Trevor Jackson and is a Netflix original movie that should be sought out by all.
Burning Sands is available on Netflix now.