In the fall of 2012, I joined Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, a national Greek letter organization that aims to uplift college-educated black women. Similar to the other groups that are a part of the Divine Nine — the historic collective of black fraternities and sororities — DST champions activism, leadership, and community engagement.
In the newly-released Netflix film Burning Sands, however, director Gerard McCurray attempts to shed a light on the controversial side of Greek life through the story of Lambda Phi, a fictional black frat. McCurray, who is a member of Omega Psi Phi, felt it was crucial to create the film after Florida A&M University student Robert Champion died in a fatal hazing incident in 2011.
In the film, McCurray introduces us to Zurich, a grounded and conflicted pledge played by Trevor Jackson. In most cases, new initiates of organizations are cultivated through sacred and meaningful traditions. Then there are others like Zurich and his line brothers, who trudge through weeks of hellish activities that stray away from the true process, which is meant to instill purpose and pride. In time, Zurich begins to question if enduring abuse to gain membership into Lambda Phi is worth it.
“There’s a big difference between pledging and hazing,” McCurray told me. To the viewer who is unaffiliated with the Divine Nine, the film may seem like a factual account of what secretly takes place when a person pledges a fraternity or sorority. "It's not my biopic," McCurray insisted. He maintains that he didn’t create the film as exposé of black Greek organizations but as a wake-up call for change. McCurray's one hope, he told me, was that the film will save lives.
Tell me about the moment when you decided to make the film?
I had been thinking about doing the film since about 2011 when Robert Champion died in the band at Florida A&M University. He was hazed and beaten to death. I didn't have the full concept all the way flushed out at that point, and I started developing it when I was producing Fruitvale Station. The full script was complete in 2013. I wanted to tell a story that dealt with fraternity subculture at an HBCU. It happens with fraternities but also different types of organizations at schools.
Parts of the film show certain elements of Greek life that could be interpreted as realistic. Why did you choose to include those things that are typically considered sacred?
It was important to me because if I'm going to tell a true story about this world, I have to be authentic. If I watered it down it wouldn't be a real story. I wanted to definitely tell all the aspects of it: the good, the bad, and ugly to show the polarity of how these things could be. But, in contrast, I did try to balance it with showing the positive sides of organizations and the brotherhood.
As a member of Omega Psi Phi, did you ever have an inner conflict about how the movie would be perceived?
I did struggle with it a little bit, but I thought about it a lot. Being the type of filmmaker I am, I like to tell true stories. I had to really show those things. I don't think it was really cryptic because a lot of things I show in the film we've seen in different films before. It's not anything new, it's just how I chose to tell the story. It wasn't necessarily a diss or a slight on any fraternity. That was never my goal with making this film. I just wanted to start a conversation about this subject matter and hopefully people start talking about how to resolve those issues when it happens, or catch something before it happens. I think it could save somebody's life in the future.
“In this time period, in this country, we should challenge things and think about things outside of the box. We don’t have to just follow the norms or traditions.” —Gerard McCurray
Frederick Douglass is referenced a lot throughout the film. What was the importance of drawing the parallels between Zurich's struggle to stand up against injustice and Douglass's words about freedom?
The school is set at a fictional Frederick Douglass University. Frederick Douglass was a polarizing figure and definitely an important figure in American History. I read his book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, and it inspired me because he was a slave that escaped to freedom. I thought some of the stuff trickled down in terms of the pledging process. He talks about freedom, being a free thinker, and that was important to the story. As I read through the memoir several times, I would find these quotes that I thought would really relate to Burning Sands. I had the character speak those words throughout the process to try to draw a correlation between the time when Frederick Douglass was a slave and the ways that people might still be treating each other. I thought it was a great tie in with a theme of slavery without really hitting you over the head with that.
In the context of Burning Sands, what are some ways that folks can get free from that mentality and behavior?
Each individual needs to be a free thinker. Nothing is wrong with being a part of an organization or group. Our organizations are very important in this country period. Especially in particular, for black men. We need them but, I challenge people to not be like a sheep and follow everybody and to be able to form opinions about any type of process. In this time period, in this country, we should challenge things and think about things outside of the box. We don’t have to just follow the norms or traditions.
You send your kid to school, any school, you don't expect them to go through anything where their life would be at stake. Overall, I want people to be able to challenge things and not just go with it. In a situation like this [the film], a lot of people ended up hurting. I teach film students and some of them went through processes where nobody would have a clear answer for why they were doing certain things.
You spoke about trying show the good sides of Greek organizations in the film as well. There's a scene where the pledges call their big brothers who've graduated into their respective career fields. It shows the life that exists outside of the fraternity on campus, and speaks to the larger professional network of brotherhood. Tell me about the importance of that scene.
When I came up with that scene I knew I had to show I wasn't making a film about people getting they butts whipped all the time. That's not really what it's about. Those things happen, but that's not really the ultimate goal of any of these organizations. It's about strengthening your network, your brotherhood, and having friends for life. There's a real connection between young and old, and it's not all bad. Everybody's not like a crazy monster beating the hell out of people.
Some people really care about the young men and they do reach out to big brothers. I loved talking to my big brothers, because they gave me insight, and they offered things to me, ideas about the world and things I could possibly do — like even being a filmmaker. I wanted to incorporate that because I wanted something that would warm people's hearts. It shows people care about each other. Showing this between black men is important because black male sensitivity is sometimes not shown on screen. It showed what the guys can get when they graduate and the connections and bonds they'll have. It's not all bad, it's just some bad apples in the bunch sometimes and those bad apples kind of make it bad for everybody. I'm a proud member of my fraternity and I'm not trying to do or say anything bad. I just want people engage in conversation and dialogue about it.