Burning Sands sounds like it should be set on some scorched Middle Eastern battlefield, but the stark indie drama is about another kind of violence—and not one much less harrowing: fraternity hazing. Trevor Jackson (American Crime) stars as Zurich, one of six pledges vying for a spot in Lambda Phi, one of the oldest and most prestigious houses on his all-black college campus, the fictional Frederick Douglass University. He’s a good kid, smart and studious, with a serious girlfriend (Imani Hakim) and a respected professor (Alfre Woodard, barely used) who’s taken a special interest in him.
As Hell Week progresses, though, his life starts to tilt dangerously out of balance; since hazing has been officially outlawed and driven underground, the rituals have only intensified. Some acts are clearly meant to build brotherhood; others are designed for mere humiliation (KP duty, eating dog food, being blindfolded and pelted with tennis balls). But increasingly, the actions of the older brothers—Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes is easily the kindest of them, though even that’s relative—come a lot closer to straight-up assault. There are metal rods smashed across tender foot soles and vicious kicks to the ribs, endless wall sits and wood paddlings that leave the boys struggling to sit for days.
Not every pledge is willing to stick it out, and some fall away. It’s hard to say exactly why Zurich stays, except maybe that his dad was once a member too, and that the school Dean (Steve Harris) who has sponsored him for the spot doesn’t seem to take disappointment well. Director and cowriter Gerard McMurray mostly makes sketches of his characters and their motivations; there isn’t much room for nuance in his script, and the movie’s darkness (literally: too many poorly lit nighttime scenes are more heard than seen) undermines its message. But there’s something powerful even in its predictability—will things go too far? Does the Pope wear a pointy hat?—and in Jackson’s fierce, quietly forceful performance. B