Netflix’s newest released film, “Burning Sands,” tells the story of a young, African-American college student who is pledging Lambda Lambda Phi fraternity, one that his father had dropped during the pledge process. The centerpiece of the film is the intense hazing that the main character and his fellow pledge brothers have to endure in order to gain initiation into the organization.
This isn’t the first film that has handled the topic of hazing, and many audiences, especially amongst the Greek community, may have an immediately negative predisposition to the film since the assumed lesson condemns hazing and the Greek system as a whole. While hazing is the main action that helps the film move forward, condemning the actions as a whole is not the ultimate message as film. The hazing does provide some shock factor and more emotional connection the characters in the film, but it manages to handle these scenes in a more mature way than other films, such as “GOAT,” which came out last year.
The themes of the film are hidden within the pledge class as a whole, as shown through the constant wide shots that always focus on the group rather than just one individual. It is rare to find a close up of someone’s face except during extremely emotional moments, such as the movie’s ending. The focus is on the group as a whole rather than the individual. It’s a well-directed film that has a better attention to detail than I initially anticipated. This ending and the emotional resonance through the director’s cinematic choices add great impact to the story that can’t be displayed through any scenes of hazing alone.
Interwoven throughout this story of pledging are quotes and ideals of Frederick Douglass about anti-slavery mentalities. The references to this great historical figure do help make the messages about standing up against an oppressive group (in this case the oppression is coming from the already initiated fraternity brothers) have another layer of depth to consider. In some ways, the inclusion of these continuous references proves bittersweet for me. On the positive side, it does bring about an increased level of education and self-awareness that other films of this nature lack, but at the same time I feel that the film didn’t quite reach the level social commentary it was aiming for.
I thought the social commentary of this film could have been slightly improved, and despite the short run time, I think there were some scenes that didn’t add much to the overall story. But those are the only complaints I really have for this film. I was impressed with this work as a whole, and I applaud its mature direction and attention to subliminal themes that make the audience think more than relying on pure shock factor. Also this film manages to paint a portrait of the African American man that is more realistic and relatable than other films such as “Straight Outta Compton.”
And that point is something that can’t ever be overstated. Too many films that want to contribute to the social commentary about a racial divide in America want to use historical stories that cause a rift for contemplation on modern life. This film manages to provide the modern setting, with realistic and relatable characters that the film industry doesn’t have enough of.
Burning Sands: 3/4 stars