‘Burning Sands’ stirs angst, jeers during VSU screening
The director of “Burning Sands,” a newly released Netflix movie filmed at Virginia State University, faced harsh criticism from students when he returned to the Ettrick campus last week for a public screening of the film.
Gerard McMurray arrived at Virginia Hall’s Anderson Turner Auditorium last Wednesday about 10 minutes after the movie ended and joined Shai West, president of VSU’s Student Government Association, for a question-and-answer session.
Following several introductory questions from West, McMurray agreed to take questions from the audience. Speaking from portable microphones stationed near the front of the stage, several students angrily questioned the director’s motivation for making the movie and argued that its violence reinforces negative stereotypes about Greek organizations at historically black colleges and universities.
“Burning Sands” was released on Netflix March 10. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
A first-time director, McMurray said he sought to make an authentic film about the dangers of underground hazing rituals in African-American fraternities, while also highlighting the bond of brotherhood and other positive impacts such organizations make at HBCUs.
“I didn’t see anything positive in your movie. All it does is add fuel to the fire,” said one student, who identified himself as a member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity.
McMurray, a graduate of Howard University in Washington, also is a member of Omega Psi Phi, among the most popular of nine longstanding black fraternities and sororities.
He was booed and jeered loudly when he responded to a student’s criticism by pointing out that two VSU students died nearly four years ago during an initiation ritual for an unsanctioned social club known as “Men of Honor.”
Freshmen Jauwan Holmes and Marvell Edmondson were both 19 years old when they drowned while attempting to cross the Appomattox River in the early morning hours of April 20, 2013.
The men fell into the river and were swept away by the fast-moving current before they could be rescued. Edmondson’s body was recovered April 22; Holmes’ two days later. Four men later pleaded guilty to various charges connected to the accidental drownings.
Based on the backlash at VSU, “Burning Sands” clearly struck a nerve.
Following the conclusion of the Q-and-A session, McMurray left the stage and engaged in a heated dialogue with several students. He then attempted to exit the auditorium, but students followed him into the lobby area and continued to loudly express their displeasure with the film.
Before the situation could escalate any further, a clearly frustrated McMurray left the building and began walking down Hayden Street toward Chesterfield Avenue.
A reporter caught up with him a few minutes later, but McMurray declined an interview request. He also failed to respond to a series of questions submitted by the Observer via email.
In press notes provided by a public relations agent representing Netflix, McMurray said he strived for “even-handedness” in his depiction of the fictional Lambda Phi fraternity and the accidental death of a pledge during “Hell Week.”
“It’s important to emphasize the history and tradition of fraternities,” he said. “From the beginning I always wanted to focus on this proud tradition because that’s what attracted me to it. I felt it was important that the audience understand why I, as a young man, would go through such a crazy process; what a life-changing experience this can be and the different motivations of the pledgees to reach the other side.
“The promise of being part of a revered organization, and the rewards that it can have for pledgees is a big part of the allure,” McMurray added. “People outside of this world may not be aware of the prestige associated with belonging to a Greek organization, but as the script evolved, I kept having to strengthen the brotherhood aspect so that the motivation rang true.”
The film was shot over 18 days on campus and other locations in the city of Petersburg and Henrico County.
New VSU President Makola Abdullah is one of several university officials thanked by name in the film’s credits.
Pamela Turner, VSU’s director of communications, said via email the university worked with the Virginia Film Office to “support the art and business of filmmaking in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
Kahil Dotay, who served as location manager for the film, recalled that the university was “very cooperative” throughout filming, which occurred during spring break.
“The students who were there were excited to be extras in the film,” he added.
The controversy over “Burning Sands” comes at an inopportune time for Abdullah. Named the university’s 14th president last February, he is scheduled to be honored at an investiture ceremony March 24 and an inaugural gala the following day.
According to Turner, Abdullah has not seen the film. ¦