That picked-over sub-genre known as the frat hazing drama (see 2016’s “Goat”) finds a new pledge in “Burning Sands,” but aside from being set at a black college, this achingly earnest first feature by Gerard McMurray really adds nothing new to the rites-of-passage syllabus.
“It’s all about the brotherhood,” declares Zurich (Trevor Jackson), a Frederick Douglass University freshman intent on seeing through what his father wasn’t able to complete by getting initiated into the Lambda Phi fraternity.
First, of course, he must get through Hell Week, and although there are strict anti-hazing policies in place, they ultimately fail to shield Z and his buddies from suffering the usual abuses at the hands of those increasingly sadistic frat brothers, forcing him to reassess his moral obligations.
Director McMurray may have taken a more studious approach than did Spike Lee in “School Daze,” a social satire set on an African American campus, but he and co-writer Christine Berg have internalized Z’s journey at the expense of deeper character development and creating any mounting tension.
It’s well-acted — Alfre Woodard and Steve Harris are among the faculty members — and impressively photographed by Isiah Donté Lee, but in the absence of a more dramatically dynamic approach to that awfully familiar subject matter, “Burning Sands” proves neither as incendiary nor as challenging as intended.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: iPic Theaters, Westwood; also on VOD