ABOVE: TREVOR JACKSON AS ZURICH (LEFT) AND STEVE HARRIS AS DEAN RICHARDSON IN BURNING SANDS. PHOTO COURTESY OF NETFLIX.
"I'm not pledging for what I can get after school, I'm pledging for what I can get now," says Square (real name Earnest), one of the supporting characters in Gerard McMurray's directorial debut, Burning Sands. "I'll be a brother and I'll have earned my respect."
Set at historically black college, Burning Sands follows a group of prospective Lambda Phi pledges and their big brothers through hell week. Each prospective member has his reasons for submitting to physical and emotional abuse they endure. For some, like Square (DeRon Horton), it's about improving their lives in the present—better parties, better luck with women—for others, like the film's protagonist Zurich (Trevor Jackson), it's about the connections they will make for the future: the successful fraternity alumni who can write them recommendations for medical school, or help them get their first jobs. For every pledge, however, the underlying, unifying theme is the notion of "respect"—proving one's worth as a masculine black male in an extremely traditional, heteronormative context.
Throughout the film, characters voice the importance of this notion through familiar platitudes. "Humiliation builds humility ... you are merely facing what other men have met," Dean Richardson (Steve Harris), himself a former Lambda, tells Zurich when he tries to complain about some of the more extreme hazing rituals. "Lambda Lambda Phi 'til we die," the pledges chant in unison. "Mind over matter," Zurich tells a concerned professor.
After going through the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, Burning Sands premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. As of last Friday, it is available to stream via Netflix. Though McMurray, who co-wrote the film with Christine Berg, was in a fraternity during university himself, he is careful to note that his experience was very different from the one shown in the film. "I got a lot of great things [out of being in a fraternity]," he explains. "I have friendships for life. I have brothers for life. It was the best thing for me." Not all frat brothers, he says, are as vicious towards one another as his fictional Lambdas. "But in the story I wanted to show that we could be," he continues. "I know it happens like that around the world, especially around the United States. I wanted to show people so we can have a conversation and dialogue about it."
Working with casting director Kim Coleman, whose credits include American Crime, Dope, and Dear White People, McMurray assembled an impressive cast. Among the fraternity brothers and alumni leading Zurich are Moonlight's Trevante Rhodes, Chiké Okonkwo, and singer and actor Rotimi. Alfre Woodard plays Professor Hughes, who encourages urges Zurich to be a "leader" and speak out against his fraternity, appealing to the same cultural norms that made him pledge in the first place. "The casting process took several months," says McMurray. "I wanted to make sure I had the right cast and I knew for Professor Hughes and the dean, I definitely wanted some established Hollywood talent."
With regard to the role of Zurich, Trevor Jackson tells us that he first met McMurray to discuss the script four years ago. "Then, when I was shooting American Crime, I auditioned for the roles of Frank and Ron," he continues. "I don't know what happened, but I got a call that I was offered the role of Zurich, the lead, which was the character I truly wanted to play." To prepare for the part, Jackson, who is also a musician, visited several fraternities while recording in Altanta. "I wouldn't say I instantly recognized Zurich, but I knew that I could find him. I think the hardest part for me was understanding why he wanted to be in a fraternity," he says. "The things I connected with Zurich about were that he is a selfless person; he wants the best for everybody. He wants to see everybody win. And he's a strong person. A lot of the time, he doesn't wear his emotions on his sleeve because he wants to stay strong for his line brothers, his family, his mom, everybody. I feel like I can relate to that."
Zurich, Jackson emphasizes, "is in such a hard place" throughout the film. "He's in place of wanting to prove to himself, but also he has the inner voice of, ‘What is the right thing to do?' You can never tell anybody what the right thing is to do in their own life; they have their own path and they've been through the things they've been through. They have to make their choices based on their life. You can only give someone your best opinion," he concludes.
BURNING SANDS IS NOW AVAILABLE VIA NETFLIX.