Burning Sands is one of those Netflix-distributed indies that premiered at Sundance in January and then promptly resurfaced on streaming after a brief couple months’ gap. I’m sometimes frustrated with this relatively new distribution path. In the case of I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore in particular, it felt a little defeating to watch one of the best films of the year (so far) never even earn the chance to build up word of mouth momentum in a theatrical run before getting lost in the Netflix deluge. In the case of dirt cheap indies like Dig Two Graves and Burning Sands, however, Netflix distribution can be a kind of saving grace. Without being able to stream these kinds of moderate festival circuit pleasers at home, it’s likely audiences would never have direct access to them and they’d slip away into oblivion. The only problem now that they’re readily accessible, though, is getting them to stand out enough so that they’re not lost in the constant flood of digital content.
Burning Sands distinguishes itself from the overcrowded market of digital era indies in the intensity & specificity of its setting. Following the violent vetting process for fraternity pledges at a Historically Black College at the height of the trials & torments of Hell Week, Burning Sands is both a solemn reflection on the toxicity of traditional masculinity and a loose philosophical exploration of how the horrific vestiges of slavery have carried over into modern black identity in America. Set on a college campus named after Frederick Douglass, the movie frequently looks to his academic writing on the horrors of slavery as a window into black fraternity tradition, often with interesting, but vaguely defined results. It’s not a film that consistently wows or provokes contemplation, but when it does choose to crank its intensity in either its physical violence or philosophical prodding, it leaves a long trail of moments & images that stick around long after the credits roll.
Scenes of romantic, familial, and academic struggle threaten to drag Burning Sands down into forgettable melodrama tedium. The movie authentically captures the feel of a college campus, right down to the red cup parties that break out in the most depressingly bare apartment living rooms (complete with an accurate snapshot of the modern rap radio zeitgeist, Future included). Most of the drama staged in that setting can feel a little flat, though. There is a near unbearable amount of tension built in Burning Sands‘s hazing scenes that feels tonally at odds with its freshman year anxieties over grades & girlfriends, to the point where one half of that divide feels inevitably inferior. Still, each kick to the ribs, drunken experiment with branding, and regimented pressure into sexuality hits with full impact and the power of its strength in imagery & tension ultimately outweighs any of its moments of underwhelming melodrama. Burning Sands feels much more interested in the horrors of hazing than it is in fretting over freshman year anxieties and it’s all too easy to see why.
Burning Sands is far from the Hell Week exploitation of last year’s GOAT, but it’s difficult to pinpoint an overarching theme or message it’s trying to convey in its dramatic narrative. At times, it feels like a love letter to the bonds humans make in crisis. At others, it feels like an alarmist picture exposing the methods that manufacture that crisis on college campuses. Themes of slavery, militarism, police harassment, and even flashes of homoeroticism rattle around in its loosely defined moments of dramatic tension without ever landing with a solid thud. It’s possible that a more solidly defined thesis would have earned the film more attention once it hit streaming on Netflix. Honestly, I’d think that the presence of Trevante Rhodes (who was excellent as adult Chiron in last year’s Oscar-winning Moonlight) as one of the fraternity brothers who torment the pledges to test their loyalty would’ve been its best chance for widespread recognition, but the film has seemingly been allowed to slip into immediate VOD obscurity anyway. The extreme specificity in setting & subject and the brutal moments of violent tension lead me to believe that Burning Sands will eventually find its audience, though, maybe even with people who can better make out the function of its central message & dramatic conflict than I have been able to. Even if it never does, it at least floated enough fascinating images & ideas to remain distinctively memorable, which is a modern indie’s first hurdle to clear.