During one of Burning Sands’ many harrowing scenes of fraternity hazing, one of the protagonist’s would-be brothers stares him down and asks, “Why are you here?” Zurich (Trevor Jackson) responds with the canned frat propaganda he knows is expected of him, but when pressed further, he doesn’t have an answer. It’s a moment that rings true for his character, but which also summarizes one of the film’s biggest problems. While Burning Sands, which premiered this month on Netflix, is an intense, well-acted look at hazing in the world of black Greek fraternities, it never quite seems to be sure what it wants to say about the problems and perils it presents.
Zurich is one of a handful of hopefuls pledging Lambda Lambda Phi at the fictional Frederick Douglass university. Zurich is a promising student, hoping to graduate and head to med school, but in the meantime his eyes are set on a more immediate goal: Crossing the metaphorical “burning sands” of Hell Week and becoming a member of the brotherhood his own father aspired to, but failed to reach. During the days leading up to the climactic initiation night, Zurich’s commitment to the fraternity damages his academic work, his relationship with his girlfriend, even his health, but the one question that is never adequately answered throughout it all is the one posed to Zurich himself: Why is all of this worth it? What’s the appeal?
Part of the problem is that, while Zurich himself is well realized, the script by Christine Berg and first-time director Gerard McMurray doesn’t service the supporting cast nearly as well. Zurich’s fellow pledges fare best, but even they are broadly sketched and lacking in motivation beyond the usual frat checklist of girl, cool parties, and social cred. More importantly, the older brothers of Lambda Lambda Phi are presented as almost across-the-board horrible and unsympathetic. A level of sadism is to be expected in a story about underground frat hazing—it’s kind of the point—but here their presentation rarely goes deeper than that.
Occasionally there’s a hint that these dudes might actually want their pledges to prove their worth and become honored brothers, but mostly they just seem like malicious pricks determined to vent their own issues through cruelty, one paddle swing at a time. For Zurich’s sacrifices along the path to Hell Night to make sense, the script needs to provide some glimmer of what prize awaits on the other side. Zurich’s motivations for wanting to join the frat are better explained than those of his fellow pledges, but even his aspirations are vague at best. There’s no sense of the fraternity’s place in the larger culture, or even a scene revealing the sort of brotherhood and camaraderie Zurich can look forward to should he succeed.
Another problem is that nearly every step along that road can easily be predicted from the very start. It’s an unflinching look at underground fraternity hazing—but Burning Sands rarely ventures away from the boilerplate narrative suggested by that pitch. Even with a cultural twist that sets it apart from many similar tales, Burning Sands never really makes use of the elements that could make it memorable or insightful. You could replace Lambda Lambda Phi with any other frat on any other campus and very little in the script would have to change. That makes for a serious wasted opportunity.
It’s not all misses, however. Jackson gives a solid and charismatic leading performance. The hazing scenes are genuinely intense, and there are lots of good moments between Zurich and his fellow pledges. One standout scene involves Zurich being tasked with bedding a coed, but not wanting to cheat on his girlfriend—it’s charming and funny, and easily one of the best moments in the script. Veteran actors Alfre Woodard and Steve Harris also make the best of thin roles, but do elevate things in the process.
The final scene of Burning Sands is the film in a microcosm: It’s an acting showcase for Jackson as Zurich, but ends on an unsatisfying note that leaves you with a checklist of things you wish it had addressed. As a snapshot of just how unpleasant hazing can be, Burning Sands is passable. But for anyone looking for a deeper exploration of what drives young men to cross those sands in the first place, Netflix’s latest original film feels like it still has a lot to learn.