Gerard McMurray, writer and director, of the Netflix original film Burning Sands knew his film about the underground process of pledging a Black fraternity was going to cause a stir, but he’s ready for the criticism and to lead the discussion about keeping Black Greek organizations alive.
“If we can have a conversation about brotherhood, friendship, what it’s like to go to a HBCU, and hazing–it’ll be a good conversation to have,” he tells EBONY. “I’ve had these experiences at all levels–from being a student, an alumni, and a fraternity brother.”
McMurray is a dues-paying member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, one of the nine historically Black fraternities and sororities that comprise the “Divine 9” organizations within the National Pan Hellenic Council (NPHC), and he wanted to highlight the secret, yet venerable, history of Black Greek life.
“I come from this world of going to a HBCU and being in a Black fraternity and I just wanted to explore that subculture. I thought it would be a great film for audiences to see,” he says, noting he’s also an adjunct professor at Clark Atlanta University. “A lot of people don’t know about HBCUs, Black fraternities, and what it’s like to go to a Black college, so I thought it was important to dial into that subject matter and explore themes of our history in this country, [and] what it’s like to be a Black man in America.”
Since the Burning Sands trailer hit the web, many in the Black Greek community have taken issue with McMurray’s portrayal of the outlawed membership practice many fraternity and sororities still engage in today. While each of the nine Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLOs) in the NPHC outlawed pledging back in 1990 and do not condone hazing, the tradition is still alive and well at campuses across the nation. Still, the NPHC Council of Presidents issued a statement about Burning Sands, stating its “member organizations do not condone, support, or encourage the production of movies, books, or any type of social media that promote hazing.”
Despite the NPCH’s stance, hazing persists—across all Greek organizations, not just Black ones—and sometimes the consequences are deadly. In 1994 Michael Davis died after being severely beaten while attempting to join Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity. In 2002, Kristin High and Kenitha Saafir drowned while pledging Alpha Kappa Alpha. In 2010, In 2011, Robert Champion, a Florida A&M student died after being beaten in a hazing ritual by his fellow band mates. These incidents, and others like it, have threatened the existence of Black fraternities and sororities, something McMurray does want to see occur.
“I love my fraternity for life,” the director says. “It’s important we preserve these organizations because that’s been our way of doing positive things in the community.”
In Burning Sands, Zurich—played by Trevor Jackson—is conflicted about his decision to join a fraternity as the violence he encounters intensifies. On his quest to become a Lamba man, Zurich struggles with whether or not the brotherhood he is seeking is really worth the beatings he’s enduring. For Jackson, who knew little about Black fraternity life, the role was a challenge.
“I didn’t know much about fraternities, but after doing research online and visiting colleges and fraternities, I was just able to get an inside scoop on what it meant,” he says. “The more that I dove into the character, I understood both sides–why people may want to [pledge] and why people might not want to do it. It’s not for everybody and Gerard was clear on that.”
Though many of the film’s main actors had little experience with Greek life, shooting the film felt eerily similar to a pledge process. At the Sundance Film Festival, Alfre Woodard called the dorm the young stars stayed in at Virginia State University an “upscale prison,” and with just 18 days to film, the crew had to work overtime, often late into the night, to pull it off.
“We had to shoot in a lot of small spaces, tight spaces. We had an 18 day, six days a week shooting schedule,” McMurray explains. “I wanted the guys to have a college feel. We put them all together so we could have that brotherhood feel and have that moment of being amongst men and feel like they’re in a fraternity. It was kinda like a freshman dorm, and you know a freshman dorm is wild.”
Jackson admits that he barely slept–on purpose–during filming, but he still enjoyed the experience.
“I had a great time, I grew a lot,” he says. “It makes it a lot easier to capture the essence of something when you have a director that’s very clear on what he wants and is generous enough to bring your own twist to the character as well.”
Although he’s gotten a fair amount of criticism from those in the Divine 9, McMurray’s goal isn’t to demean Black fraternities, but rather offer an alternative take on Black men.
“We’ve seen so many stories about Black men as drug dealers, pimps, junkies–I come from a place where I want to change the narrative of Black men in films,” he says. “We can be in college, we can be lawyers, we can be doctors. It doesn’t have to be anything stereotypical. There have so many different kinds of Black people it’s important for me to share it with the world.”
Burning Sands is playing in selected theaters across the U.S. and on Netflix.
Brinti Danielle is the Entertainment/Culture Director of EBONY. Follow her on Twitter @BritniDWrites.