In his new Netflix movie, Burning Sands, director Gerard McMurray (Fruitvale Station) takes an unflinching look at college hazing. The story is told through the eyes of a black fraternity pledge “Zurich” (Trevor Jackson), who is torn between respecting tradition and speaking his conscience.
The movie’s trailer has generated both buzz and backlash for its voyeuristic storytelling, leaving many debating whether the movie reveals underground pledging secrets and if it provides a fair portrayal of black fraternities and sororities.
Burning Sands also stars legendary actress Alfre Woodard (12 Years a Slave) as a concerned professor, Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight) as a fraternity big brother and Steve Harris (Chi-Raq) as a fraternity alum and campus administrator.
McMurray and lead actor Trevor Jackson (American Crime), spoke with theGrio.com in an exclusive interview about their intentions for the film, and why McMurray, who pledged a black fraternity, says he still has no regrets.
theGrio: Gerard, you’re a member of Omega Psi Phi and graduate of Howard University. Pledging rituals are considered by many to be sacred. How did you press forward making this movie knowing it could cause backlash within the community?
It’s bigger than just fraternities and sororities or black Greeks. It happens in bands, it happens in a lot of organizations, period. A lot of different races and classes too.
For me the inspiration came some years back when Robert Champion was beaten by the band. I thought it was a terrible thing that happened to that young man. And I thought that I would want to tell a story that would involve a similar type of process and put it in the Greek world, because I was familiar with that world.
I knew it would get a lot of backlash, but I felt like as an artist, as a filmmaker, I tell true authentic stories. So when I was going to tell it, I was going to tell it truthfully, not sugarcoat it or water it down.
And I tried to balance it out too. I just didn’t show negatives. It’s a lot more positive than negative if you really look at the film as a whole. I’ve gotten calls already from a lot of people, but I was like, “Watch the film first, then make an opinion.”
theGrio: You talked about sparking dialogue. Most of these organizations — BLGOs, bands, college groups — say they don’t condone hazing in any way. So is this a call to action for black organizations or other groups to do something about hazing? And what message would you send to those who are outside of the organizations?
It could be a call to action. People have to hold the mirror up to their face and ask, “Is this really happening?” Some people don’t want to hold that mirror up and talk about it. If people run away from it and act like “we don’t condone hazing,” then go around and do it, it won’t get through to people.
To the next part of your question, I think a film like this would challenge [someone coming to college or in college] to be a free thinker and also look at making decisions on your own.
There’s nothing wrong with joining a Greek organization; I’m from one too. But you don’t always just go with anything someone is trying to tell you. Because at the end of the day, everybody has to pay consequences for those things — university students, the hazers, people’s parents.
If you want to be part of something, why do you want to do it? And what’s worth it for you? And what are you willing to risk? Are you willing to risk your life for something like this? Challenge the system a little bit to see if it works.
For me, I’m a proud member of Omega Psi Phi, and I want it to last another 100 years, because it’s been great in my experience as a man. I want to keep my organization around.
We only have the Divine 9. And to keep them around another 100 years, we may have to address some things overall.
theGrio: Trevor, what was it like for you going through this process? Because even though you were acting, in many ways, you had to get into the mindset of somebody who was being hazed.
I tried to get as much information as I could. I would go to colleges. My A&R is a Kappa. So I was introduced to chapters, learned as much as they could tell me about brotherhood, etc. I really tried to limit my sleeping, just cut myself off everything else. The film was kind of like my hazing process.
I really tried to put myself through it as much as I could, obviously not knowing everything. I felt like I grew a lot. And doing it with my castmates who played my line brothers, it was dope. The movie was made with love.
theGrio: Talk a little bit about your character being torn. What is that struggle that Zurich is going through?
Just being a human being, we all do a lot of things and one of the hardest questions to answer is, “Why do we do these things?” That’s what he faces… His dad didn’t cross. And he just wants to see himself what he can do.
And then it gets to the point where, [are you] willing to go the extra mile just to prove to yourself something, that maybe you should already know? To prove that you’re great enough to be part of something else, but it starts to jeopardize your morals or your morality, or your inner you?
It’s a really dope movie. It’s not persuasive in any way. It’s not against fraternities, it’s not for fraternities. The story is being told and the audience is allowed to make that decision based off the film.
theGrio: Trevor, do you have interest in joining a fraternity given the character you played?
I understand both sides of it. I understand why people do it and why some people don’t do it. A great thing Gerard told me is: it’s a choice. Nobody forces you to pledge, nobody forces you to partake in it. You go into it if that’s something you’re interested in.
And that’s also the full story of becoming a man, you know. You take responsibilities for your actions and whatever you want to do. When we make decisions, we’ve got to be sure we know that’s what we want to do.
But to answer your question, it’s something I thought about it… Right now, I’m focused, got a lot of stuff going on, so I just want to work as hard as I can right now.
theGrio: Gerard, you talked about having pride in your own organization and the experience that inspired this. [Do you have] any regrets in terms of pledging? Do you think pledging has benefits?
Yes, there are numerous benefits to pledging. The brotherhood, the lifetime friends you get, the opportunities you get.
I don’t have any regrets for the organization I pledged. I love it, and it’s one of the best things that happened to me in my life.
But hazing, that’s a different subject. To be humiliated, beaten or treated like less than a man or woman, I’m not for that at all. I think no one is.
‘Burning Sands’ premieres on Netflix March 10, 2017.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.