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In Gerard McMurray’s Burning Sands, DeRon Horton and Tosin Cole play Earnest and Frank, two men pledging the prestigious but often abusive fraternity, Lambda Lambda Phi. The film is a reflection on the various mentalities that people carry in and out of this process peppered with scenes of harsh physical violence. When I saw the film, I felt as though it ultimately condemned hazing practices it depicts. However, Horton and Cole had a couple of different ideas, which make for a fascinating discussion.
M: A great deal of this film centers around respect and tradition and a lot of the violence against these pledges could fall under what is described as “good hands of generations of tradition.” How much of the violence against these pledges do you see as respect for tradition and how much of it do you see as simple barbarism?
D: I feel like a lot of the harshness we went through happens in most fraternities so it’s not out of the ordinary. I think some of it, like the pool scene, makes us stronger. The points of being in a fraternity are camaraderie, brotherhood, and friendship with one another. Sometimes it gets a little excessive like being hit in the face or being beaten for too long over a certain time. That part of it, it’s tough to go through but I do understand what they mean by tradition. You can’t judge somebody else’s way of life I guess.
T: All of it is tradition and I think that it passes down the line of generations. People have always been hazed in order to break them down mentally and physically and also to build you up. Obviously, it’s been frowned upon because unfortunately some people have passed away because of it and now it’s been deemed illegal to haze but people still want to be a part of something like that so they’re willing to risk their bodies and their health in order to be a part of something great. There’s always pros and cons to it, you’ve just got to take what you can take from it.
M: Since these characters aren’t required to be in this fraternity, do you see some of the abuses they end up facing as self-inflicted?
T: Everybody has a choice, you know? You have the choice to endure it or you can quit. It’s just about how far you’re willing to go, how bad do you want it? They do the same thing in sports training. You’ve got to tear your body up in order to reap the reward. In the Army, they mentally and physically break you down so you can defend yourself and your country. At the end of the day, they get the medals and protect us. You can say yes or no. Nobody’s forcing you.
M: So you don’t see it as a negative thing. Do you think the film paints the hazing in a positive light? That’s interesting because I didn’t see it that way.
T: It depends on what you want to take from it. Everything has negatives and positives. It’s like boxing. People put their body through hell taking punches day in and day out. You can die from boxing. Obviously, it’s negative in the sense that people are getting hurt and harmed but for somebody who has a sense of pride and enjoys those weeks of being beaten and tortured and is willing to cross that line to be a part of something. The film just sheds light on what these people are going through. All it takes is one mistake or wrong blow to the body and “boom” somebody’s gone. Some people who go through it say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done and others regret it because maybe they’ve gotten hurt or lost someone. It depends on what you deem as right and wrong.
M: By that same token, in the scene where the students are discussing the Willie Lynch letter, the question of “How do we address the real issue by adopting half-baked urban myths?” is raised. Do you think that the film frames itself as an urban myth or as a completely truthful account?
D: The film wasn’t a myth. Everything was based on reality, it was a real story. I don’t know about an “urban myth.”
T: What do you mean by that, can you elaborate?
M: I think it was trying to say that there’s so much societal storytelling about what fraternity pledges go through that it’s hard to say “this is exactly what happens.” Do you think that the movie plays into those “myths?”
T: Well, I think with Gerard being the director and screenwriter, he just wanted to tell a story based on his experiences. It’s not solely about his life but it’s coming from a real place. He’s gone through these things. His whole goal was making this realistic to educate people and to shed a light on it. People can say like “oh I had to walk on hot coals,” but as time goes on people exaggerate stories. The film is about a young guy who’s questioning these things that people endure. “Is this really what I want to do?” “I’ve put my body on the line.” “My relationship is suffering.” “My work is suffering.”
M: In Zurich’s opening narration, he defines brotherhood as “a feeling…something to strive for and be proud of.” The film poses a number of possible definitions of what brotherhood could mean, but what does it mean to you?
D: To me brotherhood is a bond that you have with either a group of guys or the guy next to you. You guys can be honest and compassionate with each other. If you’re out of line and doing something that’s against what, as your brother, I think your morals are, I feel like I can tell you “hey, you’re out of line and you need to clean it up.” If I’m not your brother I’m gonna lie to you and say everything you’re doing is correct. It’s about stepping up for somebody in need.
T: To me, brotherhood is an unbreakable bond. It’s not something that you attain. You have to earn it and all parties have to have a similar mindset. It’s about loyalty and it’s also about us locking heads and trying to improve one another. It’s a selfless act among a group of men who want to improve themselves and each other.