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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Burning Sands is a 2017 Netflix Original movie about a group of fraternity pledges in an African-American university trying to survive "Hell Week" in the midst of excessive hazing. With this movie, the "code of silence" of fraternity hazing is completely shattered, and the excessive verbal and physical abuse of the pledges makes the paddle scenes in Animal House look downright quaint by comparison. Pledges are punched, kicked, hit in the bare feet with broken-off television antennae, forced to get on all-fours and eat dog food out of a dog bowl, forced to walk blindfolded into a swimming pool while getting hit in the head with hurled tennis balls. The lead character suffers a broken rib as a result, and one of the pledges endures far worse. College sex is openly discussed and shown -- the lead character is shown having sex with his girlfriend on a dorm room bed, and another female character is told to have sex with all of the fraternity pledges, and she agrees because, as she tells the lead character, "I love f--king." She later brags of her sexual exploits, talking about how much she likes the "fresh d" of the fraternity pledges. There's frequent profanity, including regular use of "f--k" and its variations and the "N" word. Underage drinking at college parties; underage pledges are ordered to buy beer.
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What's the story?
In BURNING SANDS, Zurich (Trevor Jackson) is a new student at Frederick Douglas University who is trying to survive as a fraternity pledge during "Hell Week." "Hell Week" is a time when fraternity pledges are made to endure a plethora of humiliations from fraternity brothers -- if Zurich can make it through "Hell Week," he will be a member of one of the most prestigious fraternities on campus, with access to beautiful girls, wild parties, and a supportive community with a rich history in the African-American community. But unlike traditional manifestations of "Hell Week," the physical and verbal abuse these pledges must endure looks less like a traditional rite-of-passage and more like excessive bullying, even culminating in Zurich sustaining a broken rib. As he tries to get through "Hell Week" while also balancing the demands of academia and his girlfriend, Zurich begins to doubt the beat-downs and humiliations he and the other pledges undergo, and begins to see the behavior of the fraternity brothers and those around him as a contrast to the ideals espoused by both the person the university was named for, as well as the ideals from the fraternity guidebook that they are made to memorize and frequently shout. Zurich contemplates breaking the "code of silence" that rules over what goes on, as the pledges turn against each other and go against their own moral codes, but when he finally does talk to university authorities, he realizes that they only see the traditions and are oblivious to how bad the hazing has gotten. Only one of Zurich's professors (Alfre Woodard) sees Zurich's innate leadership qualities, and has faith that he can summon the courage to somehow put a stop to what's happening and bring the fraternity system more in line with the ideals they espouse.
Is it any good?
This movie literally pulls no punches in its graphic portrayal of the beat-downs and humiliations pledges must endure during the "Hell Week" of an African-American fraternity. There's no sugarcoating during scene after scene of excessive hazing, and the realities of collegiate sex, drinking, and parties are shown. The acting and story are skillfully delivered, with a clear sense of what's at stake for the lead character Zurich, and why he's willing to endure a broken rib, intense bullying, and compromised values in the interests of joining an elite fraternity. The role of the fraternity in the African-American community, past and present, is clearly shown.
That said, what's missing in Burning Sands is character depth in the fraternity brothers engaged in these violent acts. In a film where the pledges, the adult authority figures, and the promiscuous party girl who is ordered and happily volunteers to sleep with each of the pledges are given enough space to show who they are and their motivations, there's no such depth to the frat brothers. With the exception of one brother who puts a stop to the hazing when it goes too far, the other brothers are little more than sadists, drunk on power. It seems like a missed opportunity -- if the adults in the movie are shown to be permissive and oblivious of a tradition that has gone in a horrible direction, there certainly could have been much more humanity shown in the perpetrators of the acts. They could have been shown to be just as wrapped up in the peer pressure and conformity-at-all-costs mindset that got everyone to this point; instead, they come across as two-dimensional bullies who beat up the weak and talk down to women. Best for older teens and adults.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about movies centered on life in college. How do movies set in colleges portray classes, parties, drinking, sex? How do they portray fraternities? How is Burning Sands similar to and different from other college movies?
What message is this movie trying to convey about fraternity hazing, especially fraternity hazing among African-American men?
How does this movie contrast the hopes and ideals of the African-American university and African-American fraternity where this movie takes place with contemporary realities and values?
How are adult authority figures represented in the movie? Do you think this is an accurate representation of a college's authority figures if faced with the kind of situation shown in the movie?
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