JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Burning Sands (Director: Gerard McMurray) - March 9, 2017
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Burning Sands

4 4
96 min.

The joy and death of humiliation spawning humility

We listened well and made our pledge

Then crossed the burning sands

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

“I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”

I’ll go through the fire for you

Director-co-writer (along with Christine Berg) Gerard McMurray’s first feature shows remarkable skill and maturity as he unflinchingly tackles the subjects of familial love, pledging fraternities and underground hazing.

Five undergrads in an all-black university are willing to endure anything to be able to cross the “finish” line and become paddle-sporting members of Lambda Phi fraternity (shot at Virginia State University—which has seen the brutal results of hazing gone mad).

Many of the scenes are difficult to watch as the Big Brothers (led with gusto by Rotimi as Edwin) force their charges to stoically accept everything they dish out (including falling linked-and-blinded into a pool then peppered with tennis balls, beatings that crack ribs and eating dog food to the point of nausea). Anyone foolish enough to come to the assistance of a fellow pledge is either banished on the spot or served up a pummeling from and to hell.

To balance these grim moments, the notion of love and acceptance is explored. As miserable as their lives become leading up to Hell Night, the recruits are desperate for the respect a successful “crossing of the line” will bring them. Early on, the “instant love”: each taking their turn for a quickie with Toya (Nafessa Williams plays the frat house sex machine with just the right mix of playfulness and “don’t judge me”), quickly separates the men from the boys.

Away from their Big Brothers, the Lambda hopefuls find themselves getting closer and closer following every outrage they endure. Most notable is the bond that grows between Zurich (a first-rate performance from Trevor Jackson at times writhing in pain, struggling with whether or not to drop out, or wordlessly commanding the screen as his own flesh and blood comes to the fore) and Square (horn-rimmed geek DeRon Horton impressively punches above his weight as he unfailingly keeps the eye on his prize). Taking one for the team to disastrous effect is Frank—given an appropriately wrenching turn by Tosin Cole.

Watching over them all, Steve Harris is ideally cast as tough-love Dean Richards who can still remember his rite of passage, fillings the quintet of wannabes with religious fervour for a better life ahead once they succeed; reminding the doubting Zurich that “Humiliation breeds humility; See it through and cross some burning sands.” Words to live and die by indeed.

Here’s hoping that this production will be seen for the cautionary tale that it is and undergrads of all stripes will find love and acceptance by becoming who they are rather than who others demand that they be. JWR

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