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Burning Sands: A critical movie review with part rant!

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Dr. William A. Smith

Dr. William A. Smith

William A. Smith is department chair and associate professor in the department of Education, Culture & Society at the University of Utah. He also holds a joint appointment in the Ethnic Studies Program. He has served as the Associate Dean for Diversity, Access, & Equity in the College of Education as well as a Special Assistant to the President at the University of Utah & its NCAA Faculty Athletics Representative. Dr. Smith is the co-editor (with Philip Altbach & Kofi Lomotey) of the book, The Racial Crisis in American Higher Education: The Continuing Challenges for the 21st Century (2002).His work primarily focuses on his theoretical contribution of Racial Battle Fatigue which is the cumulative emotional, psychological, physiological, and behavioral effects that racial microaggressions have on People of Color. Dr. Smith’s work has appeared in such journals as The International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, Journal of Negro Education, Harvard Educational Review, Educational Administration Quarterly, and American Behavioral Scientist, to name a few. Dr. Smith is a former postdoctoral fellow for both the Ford Foundation and the Center for Urban Educational Research and Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former Research Associate with the CHOICES Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has worked as an administrator or professor at Eastern Illinois University, Governors State University (University Park, IL), Western Illinois University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. He received his undergraduate and master’s degrees from Eastern Illinois University (BA in psychology and MS in guidance and counseling) and his Ph.D. is from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (educational policy studies, sociology/social psychology of higher education).
Dr. William A. Smith

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The Netflix film, Burning Sands (2017), is described online as: “Zurich Condoll (Trevor Jackson) is a student at Frederick Douglass University and is proud to be a pledge at a famous African-American fraternity. But anti-hazing rules have driven his Hell Week underground, and the veteran members of his fraternity have degenerated into a pack of vicious, drunken, sadistic louts.”

Prior to recently being showcased on Netflix, Burning Sands premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Surrounding universities were invited to attend the premiere and participate in an academic “Questions & Answering” session following the showing.

After the film ended, I debated the writer/producer; who I believe was not prepared for an intellectual debate from a primarily academic/university audience. Most of all, I truly believe that he did not think that he would encounter an African American professor, who just so happened to be a member of his fraternity. Sundance Film Festival takes place in Utah (read: few Blacks, especially since Karl Malone retired).

In my opinion, the movie was (at best) horrible!

This was the epitome of someone trying to benefit from the exploitation of African American male stereotypes using white voyeurism into Black life. The audiences at each showing was almost entirely white.

The film was a hyper-exaggeration, sensationalized attempt to look at Black fraternal life. However, it failed, miserably. The pretense was to use a real problem (hazing) as a lure but his “success” in getting further exposure was to offer something that no other film on fraternity hazing has done before: showcase Black men as savage brutes. Or, as it is advertised, Black men who have “degenerated into a pack of vicious, drunken, sadistic louts.”

The writer/producer thought he had displayed some redeeming value in undergraduate life but that was very shallow. I asked him what positives could I take-away from the movie (he and his side-kick in the audience got insulted by the question) and he said there were plenty.

I said, “Help me out; give me three.” He gave two: 1) they call each other “Brother” and 2) they do community service. However, the community service, as shown in the movie, was primarily to meet the new girls on campus and not to really bring awareness to a very serious issue, breast cancer.

Message: the best and brightest college educated Black men are deceitful and will manipulate a good cause to get what they want (i.e, something between a girl’s legs).

The only redeeming character that had purpose in the film was a Black female professor, played by Alfre Woodard, and that was a very underdeveloped role. This young writer/producer really did not have the talent and experience to pull off a thoughtful fictional movie. As a result, he defaulted to brutal stereotypes against the most vulnerable population.

Today, anyone can abuse Black males without the fear or worry about receiving any repercussions. These are the same stereotypes (vicious, drunken, sadistic louts) that “justifies” white fear of Black males, but the excuse here is that an “authentic” Black male was the writer/producer. As he said after the Q&A, ‘this was a movie to get me in the door to do other films.’

So, Black exploitation is still profitable and Black males are an expendable commodity to get what you want. Where I am from, they call that pimping! This movie follows a similar tradition of “Birth of a Nation.”

Birth of a Nation portrayed Black men as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women. It was also credited with producing a dramatic increase in membership in the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). It was written and produced to squelch the immediate achievements coming out of Reconstruction era policies that help Blacks.

Many academics argue that we are witnessing a similar retrenchment in the post-Obama years. Likewise, Burning Sands was neither written nor produced for a Black audience nor about our understandings of Black fraternal life. It was deliberately made for racially conservative white interests and to justify the fear that many have about Black males.

These “alternative facts,” like enslaved Africans’ being immigrants, are attempts to distort reality at the expense of one group for the gain of another. This is one of the reasons why innocent Black males can be shot by the police without much empathy from others. Most people who kill Black males do not get convicted. Moreover, this is a racist rationale in sentencing patterns for the same crimes committed by both White and Black males being so disparate. So, the lesson in Burning Sands is that Black males are a pack of vicious, drunken, sadistic louts, even the highly educated and professional ones. “You can’t trust them!”

During the Q & A, a 60ish year old white male stated, “I pledged a fraternity in college and we were hazed, but nothing like this.” When I challenged the writer/producer, who pledged at Howard University, he said that it “wasn’t his experience” but a “cumulative experience of ‘all’ fraternities across the country.” This meant that he included the hazing that white fraternities participated in.

The evidence shows that most hazing takes place with white fraternities and usually in their fraternity houses. But these generalized experiences were superimposed and then exaggerated onto the Back fraternities and at an HBCU!

What made matters worse, when I first asked him if he was in a Black fraternity he responded that “he used to be”. When he was addressed one-on-one after the Q&A, he said he didn’t “remember saying” he used to be in a fraternity.

I, and others in attendance, believe he said that, to this predominantly white audience, to show credibility that he repudiates these organizations after being socially enlightened. This gives his film more credibility from an “insider” perspective who has now renounced his fraternal ties. However, he showed us his financial membership card. Bogus!

Is hazing in fraternal life a problem? Yes! Should it be stopped? Yes! The unfortunate thing about this movie is that its hyper-exaggeration made it about Black males as brutes and savages, and vicious, drunken, sadistic louts and not really putting hazing at the center as a national problem. Hazing must stop but the lengthier forms of anti-Black misandry appears to be the modus operandi, no matter whom it is from. It does not matter whether they are other Black males, like this writer, or Ben Carson with his alternative facts.

We must start from real facts.

The fact is that hazing is universally outlawed and it should not take place. One death is too many. Abuse is not necessary. However, to make a claim in a film that suggest what this film did was Black exploitation for profit.

Since 2000, there have been about 60 deaths from hazing. Four have been from Asian fraternities. Six have been from one of the NPHC organizations; interestingly enough, two Black sororities had two deaths each and there were two Black fraternities with one a piece.

Approximately, 40 deaths have been from white fraternities. About 12 have been from unrecognized groups. The most notorious fraternities are predominantly white: Lambda Phi Epsilon, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and Theta Chi. These fraternities had three deaths each at three different schools. Reported or suspected hazing (of all types) follow this same racial and general pattern.

In the end, Black people cannot be complicit in our own destruction. We must hold ourselves accountable for what we do. My major concern is that the filmmaker took a hyper-exaggerated portrayal of Black fraternal life at HBCUs. I think a very important point could have been made regarding all types of college organizations around hazing without demonizing Black men.

Please do not miss my major point: hazing must be stopped, no matter where it exist.

In a recent report, students stated that approximately 20-75 hazing incidents occurred with their involvement in a campus organization. Some of these student organizations listed might surprise some. In the order of least often to most frequent (based upon 20-75 incident reports) they were: honor society, academic clubs, other, recreational clubs, intramural teams, service fraternity or sorority, performing arts organizations, club sports, social fraternity or sorority, and varsity athletic teams. As a result, hazing is neither limited to HBCUs nor African American male fraternities.

The origins of hazing can be traced back to the founding of Plato’s academy in 387 B.C. Hazing must be eliminated from all forms of human engagement. We will need courageous people to help bring this to an end. We cannot do it through the use of unfair, mean-spirited, and salacious stereotypes of vulnerable groups but through focused discussion, better oversight, and appropriate mentoring of our youth. Hopefully the next film will get it right and help lead us to that shared vision.

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2 Comments

  1. JTL
    March 16, 2017 at 7:15 PM

    Lol. You’re calling my “Asian Interest” fraternity predominantly white? Get your facts straight before you write.

  2. Gary Teekay
    March 17, 2017 at 4:40 PM

    Apart from his pompous tone, Dr. Smith is wrong about most of his facts. Dangerous and disgusting hazing does indeed go on in many fraternity chapters whatever their dominant racial composition, but it is well documented that predominantly White fraternities are more likely to use methods of degradation and alcohol abuse in their hazing and Black fraternities are far more likely to use extremely stressful physical demands and physical brutality in theirs. There are articles and book chapters on this subject, often by prominent Black men, that identify this a serious threat, physically, emotionally and academically to young Black men, already frequently stressed in college. A few years ago Rev. Al Sharpton undertook to identify and fight this phenomenon. He ultimately gave up, saying that such practices seemed to be “tattooed on the brains” of young black men.

    One of the most disgusting aspects of Black fraternity hazing is that older alumni members frequently are present and actively join in the abuse of the pledges. This, too is documented. As for Dr. Smith’s assertion that the portrayal of hazing in this film is exaggerated, check out the sections on hazing in the Wikipedia articles on these Black fraternities: Alpha Phi Alpha, Omega Phi Psi, Kappa Alpha Psi and Phi Beta Sigma. These are not opinion pieces but lists of actual incidents that made it into the public. The director of this film has said that many of the events were taken from his own experience. Dr. Smith claims to be a member of a Black fraternity but is strangely silent about his own pledging experience.

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