“Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.” BURNING SANDS is a film with this Frederick Douglass quote at the heart of its thinking. Following its acclaimed debut at Sundance earlier this year, director and co-writer Gerard McMurray turns a laser focus towards the highly publicised hazing rituals in US fraternities.
Set in the fictional Frederick Douglass University, a historically black college (HBCU) the film follows bright student Zurich (Trevor Jackson) attempting to survive his classes and navigate relationships while enduring the “hell week” of fraternity pledge trials and systematic torture by fellow students.
BURNING SANDS is not the first film to tackle the problem with hazing. Last year’s Goat, for example, made for difficult but thought-provoking viewing. McMurray’s unique point of view comes partly from the HBCU setting, including a timely scene about a random stop-and-frisk by the local police. Yet the focus remains on the brotherhood and the lives of the young men surrounding their hazing. There are, of course, some intense moments of that depict the rituals themselves. Yet there’s also levity, such as a faked sex scene as part of hell week, and a general sense of the pledges looking out for each other.
Actor and musical performer Jackson holds much of the film together, but it’s his interactions with a wonderful supporting cast. It’s great to see Alfre Woodard appearing as the obligatory professor who is semi-woke to the plights of her students, even if her role is somewhat perfunctory.
The tragic final act of the film has a weight of inevitability, but this doesn’t diminish what has come before. Even amidst the machinations of a very boy-centric film, and a series of trials that get increasingly weird and violent, BURNING SANDS maintains its central focus on character and instills a sense of hope to a very real problem across the US.