The American college fraternity experience has birthed a growing subgenre of films, with Richard Linklater's "Everybody Wants Some!" and Andrew Neel's "Goat" sparking recent discussion for the way they use Greek organizations' obsession with male bonding rituals and tradition as a way to criticize the world beyond college. The tale of an "Everyman" college student being drafted into a fraternity as a pledge and sticking with it through Hell Week and beyond is inherently dramatic, and not just because it comes with a handy built-in time frame, one semester or year of higher education. Almost every pledge story told on film seems to end up becoming the story of innocence lost or ignorance reinforced. The young man seeking fraternity initiation goes into the experience in search of abstract ideas like "brotherhood" and "oneness," and emerges on the other side cynical and disillusioned or radicalized and awake. The journey can be played at any emotional pitch, and because the main characters are young men living in the zone between adolescence and true adulthood, the filmmaker can play it all sorts of ways, from slapstick comedy ("Old School") to horror ("The Brotherhood")
"Burning Sands," Gerald McMurray's feature filmmaking debut, is one of the fresher entries, thanks mainly to its setting: a historically black fraternity on a historically black campus like Howard, the university where the co-writer and director got his degree. Spike Lee's second feature "School Daze" had a subplot set in a black frat and showcased a lot of hazing, but the scenes were played mainly for very grim laughs. "Sands" presents itself in trailers as a comedy along those lines, but it's no joke. McMurray's strongest virtue is his ability to thread that comedy-drama needle while he tells the story of Zurich (Trevor Jackson), aka Z, into Lambda Phi, a prestigious Greek organization once attended by the school's dean (Steve Harris), who proposes the young man for membership.
Matt Zoller Seitz
Film critic and filmmaker.