Burning Sands originally appeared at the Sundance Film Festival on January 2017. Netflix snapped it up. They are slowly becoming the platform that exploits the festival market for their own advantage despite leading figures in the industry having reservations about streaming. Burning Sands is a drama story about an African-American fraternity.
What’s it about?
Five young black men pledge Lambda Lambda Phi fraternity at Frederick Douglas University. The men have to endure a week of big brother hazing at the campus and in the fraternity house. Leading the pledge is Zurich, who himself has to balance his education, family and personal life. This is the premise for a majority of the movie. You have to patiently stay with it in order to appreciate the movie’s conclusion.
In order for somebody to enjoy the characters, they would have to relate to them at some level. During my travels in the USA, I worked in a relatively rich area for a hotel/restaurant. At all the house parties I attended there were ‘brothers’ from other fraternities from different universities. Due to their status, they often grouped together at social events because of what they had in common. Let me put it this way; the weird events that I saw amongst these fraternity men were weird. Simple as that. As the British guy, I did not achieve common ground at all. It was obviously impossible. I did not get it. It is hard to contemplate and I appreciate the fact you have to be in it to feel it.
By the way, I am not saying all sorority and fraternity groups act like this. I appreciate that they all come in different shapes and sizes. Some require finances and reputation and others are just, well, normal. I hope.
The fraternity groups I came across indulged themselves in proud masculinity.
What’s your point?
Well, a large portion of this movie is engraved with a narrative where the characters celebrate overexerted masculinity to the point that it actually looks empty-headed. From what I have heard from legendary stories and movie adaptations, you have to do crazy **** in order to get into some fraternities. Well, Burning Sands demonstrates the nonsensical procedures on a whole new level that it is not worth understanding. All you need to know is that in order to get accepted into this exclusive membership, you must not be a quitter and be a man. I apologise if you assumed I am being sexist. I am not. The entire storyline is structured around societal norms that in order to be a man you must show no pain. You must act tough. You must respect the brothers. You must have sex with a girl if a brother tells you to. You must not talk to a certain person if it brings down your reputation. The movie has been criticised and removed of points from certain critics. The fact is, if you do your research and look into news stories, this actually happens at this absurd level. The film is not trying to teach you a lesson on masculinity. It is trying to show you how desperate it can be for these young black men. It also represents the difficulty in getting accepted in the higher echelons of a fraternity. It becomes a dream and an act of social survival. I saw the nature of fraternity behaviour to a much smaller degree. This is much worse.
This is why I must state to be patient with the movie because if you are like me, you will not appreciate the characters and at times, find yourself disliking the ridiculousness of it all.
So it’s not good?
I did not enjoy the subject matter but I appreciate that it is a well-made film. The saving grace is the lead character Zurich. The young man is strained. Torn between his good natured ways and his boldness to endure a week of pledging for the lucrative fraternity. You witness his struggle with his often unfair tasks whilst trying to maintain a viable relationship with his girlfriend. Going to class is a burden in itself, keeping awake whilst an overbearing teacher is on your case. There are many similar scenes like this which keep you holding on despite your disbelief of the pain these young men have to go through in order to gain membership. This is why praise lies with Trevor Jackson, who applies a performance that gauges an understanding with the audience. You know full well he does not wholeheartedly agree with the situation. To manage to signal that through acting alone is a great achievement.
It sounds like absolute lunacy.
It is. There are moments when you find yourself shaking your head furiously. It does not show many benefits of being part of this fraternity apart from a house party. I can only assume you get security and a solid social status. The movie enforces the point that this is a young black man story and it ensures it remains in that vacuum. It is structured in a way that you believe that joining the Lambda Lambda Phi fraternity is the best way forward for Zurich and his friends. You can only sit and watch as they are taught that nothing else matters. Heck, even their pride does not matter. Staying loyal to the group is important.
Yes, it is crazy. Outside all of this, if you stay until the very end, there is a valuable lesson to be learnt. Not for us but for the characters.
Yes. Despite my reservations when I first pressed play, if you try and understand the subject matter rather than disliking the behaviours then beneath it all you have a good, solid movie.
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Daniel Hart is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has operated as Editor-in-Chief since 2017.