The rites, rituals and sadistic extremes of fraternity hazing come in for somber if schematic scrutiny in “Burning Sands,” Gerard McMurray’s promising directorial debut. It’s a subject McMurray has wanted to tackle since his undergraduate days at Howard University, and this cautionary tale serves as the darker mirror image — literally and figuratively — to Richard Linklater’s sweet-natured “Everybody Wants Some!!” last year.
In both films, the dynamics of performative masculinity are on florid display, with men strutting their macho stuff to gain the approval of their male peers, even when they’re with women. Linklater played those interactions for gentle, self-aware laughs. In “Burning Sands,” McMurray and co-writer Christine Berg warn of the inherent dangers of groupthink and militaristic tribal aggression, here given an extra sting when they’re perpetuated by African American men on their young brothers. (If McMurray’s name is familiar, that’s because he co-produced Ryan Coogler’s astonishing first film, “Fruitvale Station.”)
Structured over the course of “Hell Week” at the fictional Frederick Douglass University, a historically black college, “Burning Sands” traces the initiation of Zurich (Trevor Jackson) into Lambda Phi, an elite black fraternity whose most illustrious local alum, the school’s dean, has proposed Zurich for membership. The movie opens as Z, as he’s called, joins five other pledges in a brutal session of humiliation and physical abuse in an isolated wood. After one of the six quickly drops out, each day brings a new test to see who can survive beatings and mortifications more sadistic than the last.
There’s no doubt that “Burning Sands” is heavier on the polemics than naturalistic, spontaneous drama; it has “message movie” written all over it (and all through it). Still, McMurray delivers a thoughtful treatise on the most painful contradictions of black frat life, which celebrates brotherhood, scholarship, leadership and compassion but also perpetuates violence and disrespect. In a too-obvious effort to drive the point home, the filmmaker confects to have Z studying the school’s namesake in a class taught by a sensitive professor (Alfre Woodard). If the Douglass quotes throughout “Burning Sands” are sometimes ploddingly obvious, they’re nevertheless on point.
Most troubling are the adult brothers — “out making power moves in the real world,” as one Lambda member puts it — who turn a blind eye to the worst excesses of their young proteges. Since hazing has been outlawed on most campuses, the practices have gone underground, making them all the more difficult to regulate and curtail. Although McMurray could have done a better job of delineating his characters, a few stand out by way of memorable performances, including DeRon Horton as a privileged pledge nicknamed Square; Nafessa Williams as a sexually liberated townie; and Trevante Rhodes — most recently seen as the adult Chiron in “Moonlight” — as a Lambda Phi with at least a modicum of conscience. Nicely shot by Isiah Donté Lee, “Burning Sands” feels candid and heartfelt — even brave. McMurray deserves credit for telling this story, welts and all.
Burning Sands, 96 minutes is streaming on Netflix.