Good friend of TBB Jan Asante understands my crush on Moonlight star, Trevante Rhodes. So as good friends do Ms. Asante alerts me to anything he does – helps me avoid getting blocked or issued restraining orders. Love her. Burning Sands which has recently been added to Netflix UK, is the film she alerted me to. Mr Rhodes has a bit part in this to the point film about the American culture of hazing.
American universities have an old boys & girls system in place known as fraternities and sororities. If you join one of the houses – especially the name-branded, then for the rest of your life you belong to an exclusive network which opens numerous secret doors ensuring your life’s reputation and financial security. Historically – The Phi Beta Kappa Society, founded on December 5, 1776 at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia was the first fraternal organisation in the United States of America [and] established the precedent for naming American college societies after the Greek-letter initials of a secret Greek motto . The use of Greek letters for fraternity names started with Phi Beta Kappa at the College of William and Mary in 1776, and since then the names of newly-founded fraternities and sororities have most often consisted of two or three Greek letters that represent the initials of a Greek motto. 
Not wanting to be left out, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) got in on the mix and formed their own versions. According to www.blackgreek.com – there are nine historically Black Greek letter organisations (BGLOs) referred to as “The Divine Nine.” and make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council – Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Founded 1906, Cornell University | Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Founded 1908, Howard University | Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Founded 1911, Indiana University | Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Founded 1911, Howard University | Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Founded 1913, Howard University | Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Founded 1914, Howard University | Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Founded 1920, Howard University | Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Founded 1922, Butler University | Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Founded 1963, Morgan State University.
Burning Sands tells the story of Zurich Condoll studying at HBCU Frederick Douglass University, he’s also pledging to join the uni’s famous fraternity Lambda Phi. We meet him and his fellow pledge brothers during ‘Hell Week’. Where the veteran Frat Brothers are putting them through the horrific rituals of hazing which ultimately goes too far.
Not exclusive to Universities and colleges, the Army and Navy have similar practices, hazing is reportedly illegal in 44 states in America, and there have been numerous real life reports of students / cadets dying as a result of hazing – [see a pretty extensive list of hazing related deaths here]. Ranging from being beaten with a paddle, made to eat dog food or drink ridiculous amounts of alcohol; running around being servants to previously graduated Frat brothers or Sorority sisters; enduring extreme physical ‘torture’ and many more, these practices are all enacted to supposedly test loyalty, commitment and stamina. The stigma of reporting hazing sessions and any personal mental or physical complications, is viewed as weak or traitorous so often go unreported. This is the perspective of Burning Sands.
Zurich who is played quite well by Trevor Jackson (American Crime) is the lead, he’s joined by his pledge brothers – Square (DeRon Horton – Dear White People series), Stephon (Mitchell Edwards – Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), Dwight (Malik Bazille – Creed) and British Blacklister Tosin Cole (Gone Too Far; Star Wars the Force Awakens) as Frank. Navigating hell week the five boys learn to work together as a team, rely on each other, trust each other and all the positive traits pledging is supposed to bring out of those wanting to join the esteemed group. We also see them supported by the fraternity’s alumni who each have been assigned as a ‘big brother’ and who are a phone call away to offer guidance and reassurance. We note their esteemed professions doctors, lawyers, sports stars etc. British Blacklister Chiké Okonkwo (Being Mary Jane; Birth of a Nation) pops up as one of these brothers.
The negatives show how Zurich’s life is affected through his schoolwork, his personal relationships with his girlfriend Rochon played by Imani Hakim (Everybody Hates Chris’s younger sister Tonya) and the never really dealt with reason he avoids speaking to his father who throughout the film repeatedly texts his son to get in touch. He also hides severe health complications suffered as a result of being kicked one too many times in the chest by one of the veteran frat bullies leading the hell week.
Burning Sands is a good film, with a few inexplicable holes. As mentioned, we never get to fully understand why Zurich doesn’t speak to his father. It was good to see Imani Hakim, post Everybody Hates Chris. Upon research her CV of work is extensive but being over here in the UK I had pondered where she’d been. Her role as Zurich’s girlfriend was a tick for seeing young dark-skinned actresses in lead roles worthy of the lead hot boy character’s love and affection. Although her character, because not given the 360 treatment could be seen as unsympathetic and their very vigorous sex scene was a tad overzealous and gratuitous.
The story is male focused so female characters are back-fillers who aren’t given much license outside of being props for male testosterone. Nafessa Williams’s (Twin Peaks, series) character Toya is highly sexed, and allows herself to be treated like crap by her ‘man’ Lambda Phi Frat Brother, Edwin. Probably preempting feminist backlash, the film gives her a moment to justify herself. She waxes lyrical about enjoying sex and isn’t bothered by Edwin’s heinous sexist and pig like treatment of her because she owns it! No. No thank you to that faux feminist nonsense. She plays the role well though and it’s another tick for shade diversity. Empire star Serayah pops up as a vapid Sorority sister with attitude.
Veteran actors Alfre Woodard (12 Years a Slave; Luke Cage) and Steve Harris (Legends; Friday Night Lights) are a little typecast in their roles. Woodard’s Professor Hughes, is Zurich’s voice of reason, and is typically poetical and abstract instead of getting to the point. You are left wondering why she isn’t more insistent in helping Zurich report what’s going on. It’s clear about the secrecy of Hazing but why bother having an adult showing concern but not doing anything about it. Harris’s Dean Richardson, a graduated Lambda Phi Frat Brother is predictably complicit in not helping Zurich during his time of need. I’ve grown to dislike Harris based solely on the horrible roles he gets cast. Notably the bastard husband in Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman, 2005 (don’t judge me).
The overall story does its job in highlighting the horrors of hazing. A tad over dramatic with the bullying Frat Brothers, Edwin (Rotimi – Divergent, Imperial Dreams) especially is way too much. But then I’ve never pledged and maybe that’s how some of them are??? Rhodes’s character Fernander is seemingly a Frat Brother with a heart. He intervenes a few times when the pledgers are pushed too far. But ultimately he’s still complicit.
Catch Burning Sands via Netflix UK here.