Netflix film Burning Sands explores the dangers of hazing from the perspective of Zurich Condoll (Trevor Jackson), a student at the fictional HBCU Frederick Douglass University, as he experiences Hell Week as a pledge of the prestigious Lambda Phi fraternity. Director, Gerard McMurray, began writing the script shortly after the death of Robert Champion, a drum major student at Florida A&M University who died during his frat hazing in 2011.
Understandably, this movie has generated a strong response from members of the Black Greek community. Presenting an accurate representation of Black Greek life and the HBCU experience is almost impossible if you're not from this world, so it's interesting to note that McMurray is an alum of Howard University and a member of Omega Psi Phi.
We reached out to 12 men and women who are members of the Divine Nine (the nickname for the nine Black Greek Letter Organizations) and asked them to share their reactions to the film. Read what each of them took away from Burning Sands in the interviews, below.
Patrick Jackson, Morehouse College '11, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity and Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity
What was your initial reaction after watching Burning Sands? It was triggering. I definitely stopped the movie a few times to get myself together.
As a member of a Black Greek Letter Organization, were you personally offended at any point during the film? More so disappointed. This conversation is still occurring and, unfortunately, it's not just in BGLOs.
How do you feel about the way in which BGLOs and the HBCU experience were portrayed in this movie? It was fairly accurate, but with films like this and others—Stomp the Yard, Drumline, etc.—they won't ever give the completely perfect picture to the experience because each HBCU and the chapters of those organizations are unique and different. I do think it gave a great general glance at life at these institutions and orgs.
What do you think the film did well? I think it accurately looked at some of the current obstacles we have to solving these problems: the silence of the current pledges, the blind eye some professors and admin turn for sake of "tradition" or not wanting to get too involved, current members not seeing the problem because "they went through it, so the pledge can do," students on the outside of the process feeling the need to just go with the flow even when they see their friends suffering.
What would you have changed about the film?I would have liked to get deeper into the conversations of why the pledges were dealing with it and what was stopping them truly from either saying something in the moment or something to someone after.
Branden Bufford, Howard University '11, Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Inc.
What was your initial reaction after watching Burning Sands?I was disgusted by the process, but also not naive to that the fact that some—not all—of these activities still take place.
As a member of a Black Greek Letter Organization, were you personally offended at any point during the film?Offended? No. Embarrassed? Yes. I wasn't offended because I know these things still, unfortunately, happen, so for me to not honor the truth is offensive to current and prospective members. I was embarrassed because, as a proud member of a BGLO, movies like this erase any respectful thoughts my wife had of my fraternity experience. It also discourages her from allowing our daughter to pledge in the future.
What do you think the film did well?I think people went into the film wanting to be entertained by the HBCU/BGLO experience, but instead, they were educated. The film was a good eye-opener for prospective, current, and alumni BGLO members.
For prospective initiates, it's okay to stand up for what is wrong. Do not be fearful to speak out against foul behavior during a pledge process. For current members, it is time to reinvent your process and become smarter. For alumni, you have to take oversight over your undergrad chapter and make sure the young adults are not making uninformed decisions that could compromise their futures. Also, alumni should be the adults and not partake in compromising activities with young adults.
What would you have changed about the film?I would not change anything about the film. I would add more, though. I would add the consequences.
Demaris Webster, DePaul University '12, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.
As a member of a Black Greek Letter Organization, were you personally offended at any point during the film? When the pledges were talking about their reasoning for wanting to join the fraternity. I wish the film also mentioned less frivolous reasons for joining a fraternity. Although the girls, parties, and respect gained are reasons for some, it's not for everyone. This may be the only peek into Greek life for some people, and you don't want it to be blanketed by stereotypes.
What would you have changed about the film?I would have made it less about the parties and girls, more about brotherhood, academia, and leadership. A lot of people fail to realize you have to meet a certain criteria academically and have a good standing within your community before your application is even considered. The way the pledges were treated, as well as the hazing, was somewhat dramatized.
The director, in making of the film, wanted to start a conversation about a call to action to stop hazing. What are your thoughts on that?There needs to be a serious conversation had about hazing amongst BGLO and other organizations on campus. But, these conversations will be useless if they don't bring in members from all bodies of the orgs—undergraduate, graduate, and members at large.
Anything else?A lot of Greeks are upset about the movie being made, but I applaud the director. It's the best representation of Black Greek life that I've seen, especially compared to Stomp The Yard, Drumline, The Quad, etc. It's tough to watch because I was in the shoes of those pledges, but it's something I vowed to never partake in once I was a member.
Philip Lewis, Michigan State University '13, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.
What was your initial reaction after watching Burning Sands?That there is a distinction between pledging and hazing. The pledges in the film were hazed, appeared to have been taught nothing during their “process,” and seemed to have shallow reasons for wanting to join in the first place.
As a member of a Black Greek Letter Organization, were you personally offended at any point during the film?I was not personally. Hazing is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. With that being said, each member organization of the Divine Nine takes hazing seriously and comes down pretty hard on those caught.
How do you feel about the way in which BGLOs experience was portrayed in this movie?I don’t think I really saw anything positive from the BGLOs on the campus in the film. Looking at the film, I am not even sure why anyone would have wanted to join Lambda Phi, based off of how they conducted themselves on campus. That’s just me, though. There are some who are attracted to the parties and boisterousness of particular organizations.
What do you think the film did well?I liked the part of the film where the pledges reached out and called the older, more successful brothers. It showcased the mentorship that exists within all of our organizations. These young pledges, reaching out to members, who were once in their shoes and are now excelling in their particular field, was a point of the film I enjoyed.
Lauren Babb, American University '14, former member of Delta Sigma Theta
What was your initial reaction after watching Burning Sands? I felt it was pretty accurate in the sense that it depicted how modern-day pledging has lost its way; although being a member of an organization brings status and a network, is it worth the loss of self-dignity and respect? I think it showed how the experience of being on the line brings people together in ways that only other Greeks can understand. Also that I am my sister's keeper.
How do you feel about the way in which BGLOs experience was portrayed in this movie?I think it gave a snapshot of what pledging can look like. The film did not depict how BGLOs run their organizations or the principles of public service or scholarship.
What do you think the film did well?I believe that it gave the viewer a look into a very exclusive world. Like any other movie, some things are true, and others are dramatized. I think it does an excellent job of showing the dangers of hazing. It gives people an idea of what they could be getting themselves into.
Marquise Francis, Syracuse University '13, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc.
How do you feel about the way in which BGLOs experience was portrayed in this movie?I feel like the BGLOs were portrayed as very one-dimensional. Being that the focus was on excessive hazing, there should have been more light shed on the positive aspects other than stepping and parties. What about the positive forums or the community service or the leadership? It would have helped give balance to the film.
What would you have changed about the film?There needed to be more light shed on the different aspects of the pledge process and the members already in the organization. Not everything about pledging is bad, and not every brother in the organization is mean. While McMurray's inspiration is well-intended, I feel there were more aspects to show. Why not focus on a band specifically and show the good and then the turmoil? Why instead focus on BGLOs who are already under scrutiny and have a litany of investigations on an annual basis?
Anything else?As people of color, we are all unique and multifaceted in so many ways. BGLO is one of them, and we all join for various reasons. The pledge process for me is going to be different for the next person, but we share that commonality that we were willing to sacrifice for our place in the organization. We hold this with pride and this is why; when someone misrepresents us, we react so strongly.
Laci Jordan, University of Alabama '11, Delta Sigma Theta
As a member of a Black Greek Letter Organization, were you personally offended at any point during the film? I wasn’t necessarily personally offended; I just think that it put Greek letter organizations and black people in a bad light.
What do you think the film did well?Nothing really. It was a hyper-exaggerated mess. When you create a movie like that—with a black cast, which depicts mostly black people—you have to assume we, people of color, are your main audience. And I think we’re tired of seeing ourselves depicted as slaves or abusive on screen. That narrative is super played. I read an article that stated that since 2000 there have been 60 reported fraternity/sorority related deaths and 40 have been from white frats. When you think about the people who viewed this movie, especially at Sundance, I assure you, it was mostly a white audience. I would be very hesitant about showing something like that in front of white audiences; it feeds into the narrative that black men are savages. Unconscious bias is real folks.
Burning Sands director is a Howard University alum and a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated. He said that the film was inspired by the death of a student and that he wants to use it to start a conversation about a call to action to stop hazing. What are your thoughts on that?If you watch it, you can tell that the motive was to call out hazing, which is fine, and I believe that conversation is needed. But again, I think there’s a way to start that conversation and create a film that shows why BGLOs are great and not the bad stereotypes. If creating a call to action about hazing was the motive, then why was the rest of the film pretty negative as well? Contrary to popular belief Greek organizations are more than popularity and step shows. These organizations bring people together, make change in the world, and give you a bond that you can’t find anywhere.
Leticia Hunt, Tuskegee University '12, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated
How do you feel about the way in which Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLOs) and the HBCU experience were portrayed in this movie?I believe BGLOs and the HBCU experience was portrayed as very superficial. As a member of a BGLO and a graduate of an HBCU, I felt cheated. There’s a burning curiosity to get a glimpse into the black culture and community. It is important that we are the ones telling our stories and telling them truthfully, but we also need to be cognizant that eyes are on us and we should be telling stories holistically. Our HBCUs and BGLO are very important in this country. We produce the most black engineers and doctors. Life at an HBCU is a constant balancing act between academia, individual growth, and social life. Academia and growth were only [tangentially referenced] in Burning Sands, while there was an emphasis on social life. There was only one scene in a classroom, while there were several scenes at a fast food restaurant. In order to be a part of BGLO, there are academic requirements that must be met, meaning while there is a possibility your grades could slip during the pledging phase, there is still a large portion of your focus that must remain dedicated to your education.
What do you think the film did well?I would like to applaud the director for taking on such a controversial topic and shedding light on to the consequences of “pledging” gone wrong. While I do not agree with the entire approach, I would be a fool to say that the topic wasn’t relevant. There have been several cases of death and fatal injuries as a result of pledging. I think the film did a good job of explaining that there are certain responsibilities given to members of an organization while bringing “pledges through.” Many times people can overstep boundaries or forget their responsibilities, and that is usually what leads to misfortune in the process. I also thought it was powerful to show the pledges reaching out to members of the organizations who were in different stages of post-undergraduate life. Furthermore, I enjoyed the one professor's concern with Zurich; educators at HBCUs are definitely more connected with their students. Lastly, I believe the film did a good job highlighting some of the challenges you face while pledging, i.e., discretion, maintaining relationships, financial strain, and time management.
Breanna Washington, Spelman College '13, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.
How do you feel about the way in which BGLOs and the HBCU experience were portrayed in this movie?The movie hardly depicted what it was like attending an HBCU and mainly focused on the pledging environment. I say that because I look at a movie like School Daze that truly encompassed what it was like being a student at an HBCU. Not everyone is Greek, and not everyone wants to be Greek. To me, it was very one-dimensional and flat in depicting what it is like to actually be pledging at an HBCU. I think much of that comes from the lack of character development in the film. There was so much to be said about this experience that the film itself just seemed rushed and paced wrong. Considering that this film was not just for BGLO audiences, those who aren't members of an org may still be confused about certain aspects of the experience.
Burning Sands director said that the film was influenced by the death of Robert Champion and wants to use it to start a conversation about a call to action to stop hazing. What are your thoughts on that?I think the purpose of the film was to start a serious conversation about the severity of underground pledging. I believe this was absolutely necessary. It is also equally irresponsible for members of BGLOs to dismiss this movie as pure fiction when it is not. These events have, do, and will continue to happen. There is a strong difference between hazing and pledging, and many of the members of our BGLO have failed to see the difference.
Many of the BGLOs have already begun to have these conversations on the executive level. However, for those of us who don't operate on that level, we must begin to question our own actions and if we are truly embodying what our founders created these fraternities and sororities for in the first place. Would they be proud of the ways we initiate new members? Are we perpetuating the cycles of violence and hazing just because it was done to us? How do we break these cycles? Are we truly uplifting one another even in the molding process for those trying to pledge? Do we really understand the difference between being made and being made right?
Keryce Chelsi Henry, Johns Hopkins University '14, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated.
What was your initial reaction after watching Burning Sands?I watched the film after hearing quite a number of negative reviews, so I didn’t have the highest expectations, to begin with, but I don’t think it was as bad as some people made it out to be. The film set out to address hazing in BGLOs, and it did—but with exaggerations and inconsistencies. This was frustrating, because the film was shot very well, and could have been even better had the plot been more realistic. However, creating a film like this puts the director between a rock and a hard place, because while he is addressing very real issues of hazing and people seeking membership in BGLOs for superficial reasons, to truly address every aspect of the situation would require him to reveal confidential details of the process of pursuing membership in these organizations.
Were you personally offended at any point during the film? I didn’t take any part of the film personally, but I was confused by some of the far-fetched details of the plot. I was mostly let down by the lack of visibility of black sororities in the movie. We see one sorority member, admirably depicted as being intelligent and strong-willed, but we don’t get a sense of her connection to her sorority sisters. I’m not familiar with any films about BGLOs in which black sororities are just as visible as the frats, so I was hoping that Burning Sands would break this trend.
How do you feel about the way in which BGLOs experience was portrayed in this movie?I believe that the representation of Black Greek Letter Organizations could have been more well-rounded. I’d be remiss to say that the film was entirely falsified; Gerard McMurray didn’t make up the violent initiations depicted in Burning Sands. But BGLOs are anti-hazing organizations, so what is depicted in the film is far from being the norm of the process of becoming a member. Based on feedback from people who aren’t Greek-affiliated, the positive characteristics of these organizations aren’t portrayed prominently enough in the film to indicate that the negative experiences that it depicts are exceptions to the norm. However, Burning Sands did expand the representation of BGLO in film to a certain extent, by incorporating older fraternity members into the story line in order to demonstrate the organizations’ emphasis on lifelong, active membership, rather than simply focusing on pledging as other films have.
What do you think the film did well?Even with its inconsistencies, Burning Sands was definitely filmed very well, capturing the mental and physical abuse of being hazed.
Maya Alena Allen, Howard University '15, Alpha Chapter Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.
What was your initial reaction after watching Burning Sands? I was really disheartened by the depiction of Black Greek Organizations. It emphasized the false perception that hazing is at the heart of Greek Organizations, when really at the core is a strong bond of love, sisterhood, and brotherhood. Instead of highlighting the important reasons people join sororities and fraternities for—family lineage, support system, seeking personal and professional growth—it created a narrative that was negative. It didn't shed enough light on the positive aspects.
How do you feel about the way in which BGLOs and the HBCU experience were portrayed in this movie? It sent the message that HBCUs are only about Greek Organizations, sex, and parties, which is not true at all. It sent the message that when you join Greek Letter Organizations you fail in your classes, which is also not true. I actually received a 4.0 GPA while I was pledging.
Lakin Starling, Spelman College '13, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated.
What was your initial reaction after watching Burning Sands?Well, before I watched the film I had a pretty visceral reaction to the trailer. My biggest worry was that the film would include special and sacred elements of a pledging process that aren't to be shared with the public. Now, that's not to say that those practices are kept secret because they're bad or necessarily harmful, it's just that there are traditions that truly are integral and meaningful to the journey towards membership. After I watched it, I really saw that McCurray was trying to do. There are problematic hazing activities that some individuals engage in that stray far away from the meaningful traditions of respective divine nine organizations and it's definitely crucial to challenge them in order to encourage free thinking and to save lives. I just wish that there were more nuances that showed the positive aspects and members of the organization in the film because there are so many!
As a member of a Black Greek Letter Organization, were you personally offended at any point during the film? Please explain. I wasn't really offended. Certain parts were difficult to watch, but I believe that most of those were impactful parts of McMurray's directorial decisions. I do think it was a missed opportunity to give a more rounded portrayal of black greek organizations even though there were a few scenes that did that. The one where the pledges made phone calls back to their older big brothers felt really good to watch. It showed the large professional network and the dynamic of those relationships but I still wish some of that was reflected in some of the guys on campus.
How do you feel about the way in which BGLOs and the HBCU experience were portrayed in this movie?The HBCU experience is such a multifaceted one. BGLO's are a big component of the culture but not all of it. There were things that resonated like the impact of professors who care about your well-being and take the time to advise you outside of the classroom. To me, this movie focused more on fraternity and not the HBCU experience. As a member of a sorority, I know how important campus involvement is and how much seeing women in my sorority have leadership roles on campus impacted my decision to seek membership. My worry is, the people who don't know anything about BGLO's may watch this and think it's the norm and that everyone endures this type of abuse.
Burning Sands director said that he wanted to use the movie to start a conversation about a call to action to stop hazing. What are your thoughts on that?Everything about learning and growing should be intentional and purposeful. If it isn't, it's always more worth it to question instructions and stand up for what's right. Upholding the illustrious principles of BGLO's doesn't just start after a person becomes a member. It's important to embody those values to empower pledgees so that these same problematic practices don't continue.