If Netflix’s Burning Sands were about drug addiction instead of hazing, would people be talking about it?
(Seriously, the main character smells, has all sorts of mysterious injuries, and starts falling off in his schoolwork and personal life, destroying his relationships ... pledging a frat that hazes is just like taking up a crack habit!)
This was the question we, the few black Greek-letter-organization members on staff, asked ourselves when we had a staff discussion about the film, its merits and demerits, and whether it could stand alone as a good film or is it just hazing hype.
Round up a gaggle of college-educated black folks and you’re bound to find a few members of the Divine 9 there. The Root staff is no different—we have several folks on our team who have sorors and frat brothers to claim as the family they chose. I’m a member of Zeta Phi Beta. We have members of Delta Sigma Theta, Omega Psi Phi and Kappa Alpha Psi, too. All of us had at least a passing interest in Burning Sands, a film that turns the pledge process into a stressful nightmare of hazing rituals and abuse.
While not everyone was interested in seeing the film (one particular Greek on our staff was adamant that she wasn’t watching under any circumstances), three of us did decide to watch and share our thoughts on the film, pledging vs. hazing, and black Greek life in and of itself. Check out the text conversation below.
Danielle Belton: So, first off, no lie, I couldn’t finish the last 30 minutes of the film because it stressed me out so bad.
Corey Townsend: Do you want to know how it ends?
Michael Harriot: It doesn’t end.
DB: Yesha [Callahan] spoiled the ending for me that she got from somebody else because she refuses to watch it.
CT: It’s basically what happens when you have younger members making shit up as they go with no guidance from prophytes.
DB: It reminded me of the few frats who had their chapters revoked and banned but were still operating illegally on campus. Like, they didn’t feel like a “legal” frat to me. ... But they were supposed to be legal? And old people were aware of them in the movie, so I was very confused. No one was trying to clean up shit.
MH: I just think it was all a caricature of a fraternity. ... So apparently the director went to Virginia State last night, and the bruhs not so politely escorted him off the yard.
DB: Not surprised.
MH: Yeah. I think he created a stereotype of a fraternity based on the myths of people who were never in fraternities and sororities.
CT: What he did was make pledging, however you define it, harder for Greeks as a whole ... because administrations are going to watch this and crack down on D9 orgs.
MH: He didn’t have a villain for the movie, so he made “pledging” the villain. I always believed stuff like this leads to MORE people getting hurt.
CT: This whole movie could have been a group chat or email to his chapter on how to get their shit together.
MH: Because it drives it further underground and the responsible, older, wiser people won’t have any oversight
DB: Exactly right, Michael.
CT: Yupp ... when you have younger members just making ish up as they go, that’s when problems arise.
MH: That’s why I haven’t engaged in most of the conversations surrounding the movie.
DB: My college campus was full of folks pledging underground. That’s why there were so many folks who had their chapters pulled when I was going there in the late ’90s.
DB: Full disclosure, I went to a PWI.
[Editor’s note: The film takes place on a fictitious historically black college campus. PWI stand for “predominantly white institution.”]
MH: Me, too.
CT: Also, as well.
MH: I think it’s worse at PWIs.
CT: It def is, Michael.
DB: I do, too, because there’s no one watching anyone.
MH: Because the white people have no clue about black fraternities and sororities.
DB: Exactly. They don’t know or care.
MH: We could walk around campus with our heads shaved, lamps on, and everyone knew what was going on except the white people.
DB: LOL ... my school was pretty much the same.
CT: They’d think we were in a band or doing some new fad.
DB: But things got so bad on our campus that one year [sorority name redacted] neophytes fought their big sisters at their coming-out party. Like, my campus was just wild.
DB: So, that’s probably why I found the film so stressful. It was basically our college, but it was a white school and no teachers cared or were checking on anybody.
CT: I clutched my pearls, in case you were wondering. ... The movie just irritated me because now it gives non-Greek [people] some kind of right to talk about a process that they have no real understanding of.
MH: You didn’t make it that far into the movie, but the scene where the double doors open and there were a bunch of bruhs waiting for them at hell night, I literally had a flashback.
MH: That almost got too real.
DB: Y’all not gonna convince me to finish this stressful movie.
MH: But in general, the movie created a false narrative. There are people who never pledged, who watched the movie, and want to have a conversation about pledging and hazing based on a caricature.
DB: I mean, if all pledging was beat-downs, nobody would be in anything.
MH: Because now they think they know what it’s like.
CT: And it could have done a better job at showing all aspects of Greek life ... like chapter meetings and community service. Everyone knows the real drama happens in chapter meetings.
DB: Heck, they could have just shown the more silly, benign, fun, bonding aspects of pledging. They didn’t even do that.
CT: Like, the mental hazing could have been played up so much more. THAT is the real hazing.
MH: The biggest thing about it was he didn’t give a legitimate reason why anyone would go through this.
CT: Like, a bruise goes away, but the scars from mental hazing are forever.
MH: Because of his father? Because of some recommendations?
DB: Exactly. They didn’t make the case for why, Michael. Why would anyone go through that?
CT: Michael, they didn’t know each other’s names ... so a valid reason would have been asking for too much.
MH: Not even friendship. He didn’t even really get close with his LBs.
[Editor’s note: “LB” stands for “line brother.”]
DB: Which was weird. Like, the whole point of the process is to bond with the folks you’re on line with.
MH: Exactly. They only showed the beatings.
CT: Again a false narrative, because there is no way that you’re in a room with someone getting beat for three weeks and not know their names.
MH: They didn’t learn anything.
CT: They learned, like, two poems in three weeks.
MH: They didn’t know their history and it was hell week.
DB: OMG, the amount of stuff I had to memorize.
MH: How sway?
DB: And recite!
CT: Like, if I see you getting beat, I am going to make a point to know your name so I, TOO, won’t get beat ... but then I’d get beat for being the shiner ... so then no one really won here.
MH: The execution of the story was too simplistic. It was Tyler Perry Presents: Pledging.
MH: I’ve never actually seen a Tyler Perry movie, but that’s what I heard.
CT: Diary of a Mad Black Scroller.
MH: Everyone who pledged probably watched the movie like, “There’s no way.” And everyone who didn’t watched the movie like, “There’s no way.” I don’t know what anyone took from the movie except negativity about fraternities and sororities.
CT: I took that I can never get back my hour and 40 minutes.
DB: What do you think the filmmaker’s goal was with the movie?
CT: To waste my black-ass time. ... But if that wasn’t it, maybe he was trying to give a wake-up call to folks with intake processes. I’ve been saying that D9 needs to just cease intake as a whole because after 2006 it started going downhill, and then in 2009 it just went left really quickly.
DB: What would they replace it with, and could they even properly enforce it? The reality is, people want some kind of intake process, but reining in renegade chapters takes a lot of work and cracking down.
CT: Oh, I’m not saying get rid of it altogether, but people need to get their shit together and all get on the same page if they expect to last another 100 years.
DB: What’s fascinating is how wildly different someone’s process can be based on where they went to school and who was running the chapter. My mom’s experience versus my experience versus my sister’s experience were night and day. But everyone will argue their way was the “traditional” way.
CT: Having prophytes with common sense is a rarity these days.
MH: I think the opposite. I think that if they want to decrease their liability—especially for undergrad—they need to have a period—probably in the summer—that’s like a camp. It would be a supervised pledge period.
DB: Greek camp!
CT: See the great outdoors, get some letters.
MH: Think about it. If you had older prophytes monitoring the entire process on campus for four weeks, less stuff could go wrong.
MH Pledging is not the problem. The fact that you have to do it underground, in secret, is the problem.
DB: If it could be done out in the open and monitored, I agree, that would be best for everyone. People want the bonding. The family aspect of it. The studying and bringing people together. The part of my process that was making up songs and dances, learning history and baking cakes for my big sisters was actually fun. I wouldn’t want to lose that.
MH: And I’m not ashamed to say: Pledging works. It taught me a lot about life. And myself. Which is also what he didn’t show in the movie: The fun times on line.
MH: It takes you to empty and shows you there is something still in the tank. And [it’s the] best workout.
DB: But I feel like the director clearly wanted to make a commentary about what happens when things go horribly, horribly wrong. And how bad that is. While the film is negative, I didn’t feel like it was an indictment of all black Greeks. But I can see why someone would take offense, considering the focus was on the worst of the worst. And as for the ending, I mean, a proper ending should have been the chapter getting pulled, because if it was that bad, there was no way that chapter was surviving.
MH: I think it was just a movie. But people will watch it as an insight on all fraternities. And EVERYONE knows he was portraying Ques. ... I’m not even overly sensitive about my fraternity; I even think there should be a conversation about pledging and hazing. It’s just that this movie gives people a poor example.
CT: Didn’t we already have School Daze? Was that not enough?
MH: It’s like having a discussion about black history with a white person who thinks they know what they’re talking about because they have seen Roots.
DB: LOL ... So, if we remove our letters from this conversation and just look at this as any other movie—was it a good movie?
MH: If it wasn’t on Netflix, I’d say, “Wait until it comes on Netflix.”
MH: Put it this way: if it wasn’t about fraternities and sororities, no one would be talking about it.
DB: Very true.
MH: But if you were home on Saturday night and ran across it on HBO, I’d watch it.
DB: I think it was interesting to look at and well executed, but it felt like a slow-moving horror/snuff film to me, and I just kept waiting for someone to die.
MH: It had flaws. Like, why was Alfre Woodard even there?
CT: Because Alfre has rent.
MH: Or the girl he danced with?
DB: A lot of the characters were underwritten. I did appreciate that they made the girl at the fast-food place just really sexually liberated and a not a sexual assault victim.
MH: It felt like they cut out the purpose of her character.
DB: She’s a person who exists in the world. I’ve met girls like her. As someone who was in a sorority, we found these girls “annoying.” But in that stupid way where all women who aren’t your sisters are competition.
MH: But she was purposeless in the story.
DB: True! She was just another person, thing that happened. Like all the weird stuff with the girlfriend who dumps him in the middle of hell week. It was like an after-school special. “LOOK AT ALL THE THINGS BEING TAKEN AWAY FROM YOU BECAUSE OF DRUGS ... I mean ... PLEDGING!”
MH: All the B stories went nowhere.
DB: Weird injuries, he smelled, broken relationships. He could have easily been a garden-variety drug user. I would also give this movie a C, considering I couldn’t finish it.
CT: HOW ARE YOU STILL ABLE TO THINK ABOUT SEX WHILE BEING HAZED? ... Sorry, that came from my spirit.
CT: Priorities all messed up. Like, you might want to spend this time learning your number one’s name.
MH: You can’t NOT when you’re 19.
DB: As my dude friends say, “You gotta do what you gotta do.”
MH: I was 18.
DB: I was 20.
CT: All old enough to have known better, and yet here we are looking back like, what the hell were we thinking? Pledging was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.
MH: Yes. ... It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I’m glad I did it. But I’d never do it again.
DB: I can’t say it was the hardest thing I’ve done, but I wouldn’t do it again, that is true. Hardest thing I ever did was go through a divorce. I lost, like, 30 pounds in two months! Then gained it back plus 30 more pounds in another six months.
CT: So in order to get summer-ready, I need to go through a divorce? Sorry, my homosexual shallow nature took over.
MH: Watching this movie was the second hardest.
CT: Pledging and chemo are tied for No. 1, but this movie is a STRONG second.