Much to my surprise, Black Twitter hasn't exploded about the new Netflix film Burning Sands. Both greeks and non-greeks seem to be in agreement that the film is a bit of an exaggeration, but the topic at hand — underground hazing in Black fraternities — is something that we need to talk about.
When I spoke with a few of the film’s actresses, they all seemed to be on the same page. Serayah McNeil, who embraced the move away from her pop princess persona on Empire to that of college student Angel, said that it was “a great story that needed to be told,” even if the telling of it was “brutal.”
Imani Hakim rose to fame as the cynical younger sibling on Everybody Hates Chris, and plays fashion major Rochon in Burning Sands. She thinks the film is important because it’s a first step towards separating the good parts of pledging Black greek organizations, like “the community and the brotherhood and the sisterhood” from the ones that need to be re-examined. She thinks hazing practices stem from “people thinking that since they had to go through it that they have to do it to the new people that’s coming along. And it’s like a sense of power.”
One of the things that struck me about Burning Sands, however, was that it focuses almost exclusively on men. Women, including sorority members, appeared to be relegated to the background of an extremely masculine part of the Black student experience. Angel is, as Serayah lauded her over the phone “a smart girl, not just a pretty girl.” Her short appearances throughout the film — viciously defending her point in class, seductively dancing with a pledgee, and strolling with sorors at a party — never addressed what she may have done to earn her own letters.
With the exception of the wise and motherly Professor Hughes (Alfre Woodard), all of the other major female characters played girlfriends and sexual sidekicks. Rochon, the loyal girlfriend to pledgee and main character Zurich, had a life and friends of her own, but it seemed to dull in comparison to Zurich’s. Her major source of conflict was leaving Zurich after it became clear that Zurich’s interest in joining a fraternity were more important than her relationship.
The most refreshing character was Toya, played by Nafessa Williams. She volunteers to have sex with the pledgees but is compassionate enough to only pretend like she did when Zurich is too injured to participate. In what is supposed to be a moment of sexual objectification, Toya intentionally frames her sexuality around her own pleasure and not the approval of men during a conversation with Zurich. “I think if we all could borrow a little from Toya we’d walk away with a little extra confidence and be empowered by who she is. She lives her life. She doesn’t make apologies for it,” Williams gushed about her character. “She’s just unapologetic and I love that. She’s super smart. She has a lot to offer and a lot to teach although she’s not in college herself.” I couldn’t agree more. “She’s just fearless. She knows what she wants. She handles herself a little different than some other women probably would or different than how men would expect her to.”
The (lack of) female characters in Burning Sands leave quite a bit to be desired. However, these dynamics didn’t define the set behind the scenes. Hakim told me “it was nice to have that “female energy” and a sense of “empowerment” on set because she so rarely experiences it as a female actor. Sometimes, that’s what matters the most. But I’d be lying if i said I didn’t wish for more of that in the movie.