It took Byron Hurt 10 years to make his latest film, Hazing, and it was well worth the wait (or, weight). No, it is not a hit job on fraternities and sororities, but it is a sobering, often infuriating look at how seeking belonging can too often lead to life-long trauma, and even death.
First of all, Hazing is not focused on Black Greek Lettered Organizations (BGLO’s), but covers the full spectrum of the problem. Nevertheless, as a proud member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., he was keenly aware of the ramifications his film would cause amongst his own brothers and other organizations. It’s a secret society and all they ask is trust, to paraphrase Jay-Z, so any potential airing of dirty laundry instantly raises eyebrows and throws up walls of access or conversation.
“I never wanted to make a film exclusively about Black Greek Letter organizations,” Hurt tells Cassius. “That was never my intention. In fact, I resisted the impulse to only focus on the Divine Nine. I just felt like it would be really irresponsible for me to do so because hazing is such a widespread issue. Black people are not the only people who experience hazing or perpetuate hazing. So for me, as a Black filmmaker, as a member of the Divine Nine, it was important for me to really go beyond the Divine Nine to share stories, about hazing that don’t focus on Black people.”
A fact presented early in the film is that hazing at historically white fraternities is where 83% of hazing deaths occur. Viewers may be thrown for a loop when they realize they didn’t consider the hazing that happens in organizations like police and fire departments, or sports teams, or marching bands. Hurt’s goal was to spotlight why people themselves go through these rituals, but without the victim blaming that tends to occur.
Hazing takes a deep look at some select stories that will leave you heartbroken knowing their deaths should never have occurred. Byron Hurt saw the pain and destruction the practice has caused, and vowed to create a documentary that would serve as a reckoning for those insistent on maintaining the status quo for the sake of tradition, or the irrational “I did it, so should you” reasoning many use as a crutch, without acknowledging their own traumas. And sometimes that means looking in the mirror.
Among the psychologists, scholars, and family members Hurt spoke to for the film is political commentator, TV host and professor Marc Lamont Hill, who is also a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, Fraternity, Inc. At one point in the film, Hill is shown a damning video of a prospective member of his fraternity being paddled and brutalized. At first, Hill doesn’t really condone what he watched, but asserts it was indeed brutal when taken out of context. However, he eventually amends his reaction when he really takes in what he watched—the victim in the footage suffered debilitating damage to his spine while pledging.
“I struggle with this myself,” says Hill. “And I think what scares me…cause I ask myself how is that I have far more advanced and progressive conceptions of masculinity around love and relationships, around sports, around education, around all these other areas but why is this thing the thing where I tend to have a contradiction and I think part of it is that deep down I’m probably afraid that at the end of the day I did all that sh-t for nothing. That none of it mattered, that none of it meant anything, ya know. What I went through all of that, did all of that, for something that doesn’t amount to anything.”
Most members of organizations are scared to even broach that topic. But the conversations should be had. Sitting down and watching the film makes it clear that although he pulls no punches, he still appreciates the “unconditional love” and “beautiful Black joy” of being in the Divine 9 family. But losing loved ones to hazing is just a price that’s too high.
“I have faith in the film. I have faith in the actual work,” says Hurt. “The documentary will be transformative to anybody who actually takes the time to watch it.”
Check out our enlightening conversation with Hurt below.
CassiusLife: I know I’ve been hearing about you creating this documentary for years, what was that journey like? How difficult was it?
Byron Hurt: Creating this film was probably the most challenging, most difficult process that I’ve had to go through as a filmmaker. Each film has its own set of challenges, but this one was a particularly difficult one because of the subject matter. Dealing with such a big, sensitive topic like hazing, and then also just pulling together the funds, the fundraising to make the film was a bigger challenge than I initially thought.
Creating this film was probably the most challenging, most difficult process that I’ve had to go through as a filmmaker.
CL: Okay, how were you able to overcome that?
BH: Perseverance, I was able to just kind of stay the course and not give up on myself and my vision. I’ve never started a film that I have not finished, so I didn’t plan on this being the first one. It just required a lot of persistence and believing in the importance of the film and really making a commitment to getting the film done no matter what. And I think the parents of some of the victims and their children, as well as the other survivors who are a part of the film, they also help keep me going as well, because I was just sort of driven by the spirit of the people who were killed as a result of hazing and just really wanted to just preserve their memories. I can’t really explain what it’s like to get to know families of victims of hazing and even talking to survivors of hazing and just the level of responsibility that I felt to do justice to their stories and to make sure that I saw through all the way to the end.
CL: Was including the personal stories always part of the film, or is that something that kind of developed as you did your research?
BH: By focusing on individual stories, people who were impacted by hazing directly, I felt that that would make the most powerful film, the most powerful story. And so we did a lot of research to determine which stories we were going to focus in on and why. Robert Champion is a young man who was a member of a marching band, right? I mean, most people, when they think about Hazing, they think about Greek life. If they think about anything outside of Greek life, they think about sports, maybe sports culture. But I really wanted to expand the viewers idea of where hazing takes place. The kind of spaces where it happens. We were very conscious about choosing very particular stories that represented a different space where hazing occurs.
I mean, we were just limited to the broadcast length of the show, and then we didn’t want the film to be too long. I don’t believe in holding my audience’s hostage, so we have to make some really tough decisions about which stories we were going to include. And I wanted to film to feel racially diverse. I didn’t want it to center on Black Greek letter organizations exclusively. I wanted to be able to expand outside of my own personal experience. Although, of course, I use my experience as a launching point to get into these other stories. But stories are what people remember.
CL: A lot of people do take for granted the hazing in colleges while almost ignoring how it occurs among firemen or policemen, the military or other organizations.
BH: No, I never wanted to make a film exclusively about Black Greek Letter organizations. That was never my intention. In fact, I resisted the impulse to only focus on the Divine Nine. I just felt like it would be really irresponsible for me to do so because hazing is such a widespread issue. Black people are not the only people who experience hazing or perpetuate hazing. So for me, as a black filmmaker, as a member of the Divine Nine, it was important for me to really go beyond the Divine Nine to share stories about Hazing that don’t focus on Black people.
CL: You mentioned being an Omega Man and being candid about your own trauma to start the film, what has the reaction been to you creating this film?
BH: For brothers who have seen my film, who are members of my fraternity Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated, they have been very supportive of it. They’ve been able to put it in this full context. There are others who are responding to a 32-second trailer without seeing the full film in context. So I really have a lot of confidence that once my fraternity members see the film and its full context, they will support the film. And I’ve already been getting a lot of support from many of my fraternity brothers who have been reaching out to me personally, have been DMing me, have been texting me, sending me emails, and thanking me for making the film. And so that’s what I’m leaning into. I’m leaning into the people who have been supportive of the documentary. Not just people just within my fraternity, but within the Divine Nine as well. As you know, this is a very sensitive topic. There are a lot of people who don’t really want these issues, issues like hazing, to sort of be presented because they believe that it sort of puts the Divine Nine in a bad light. But I believe that this film will give lots of people within the Divine Nine who don’t agree with hazing or really dangerous rite of passage processes.
CL: Do you make the distinction between pledging versus hazing or did you see it as one and the same?
BH: Well, yes, I do. I make a distinction between pledging and hazing. I mean, there’s a very strict definition for hazing, and it’s very clear, regardless of how you really feel about it, it’s a legal issue. And if you say that you are pro hazing or that you support hazing, I think you should spend some time with the family who’s lost their child to hazing or to someone who has lifelong injuries as a result of hazing. I think that there can be a rite of passage process where people are not harmed. I mean, many of our organizations have membership selection processes or membership intake processes where no hazing happens. The problem is there are too many people who are still connected to or attached to the old way, and that’s what we’re trying to move away from. I mean, that’s what the film is encouraging us to think about and hoping that it will, I guess, be like a media tool that will create conversations that will get people to talk about these issues, debate them with the potential of people being transformed and evolving on this topic. That’s what I’m hoping for.
CL: It was so heartbreaking when you spoke to the parents where the children were victims. Like, what do you say to a mom who lost her daughter?
BH: Interviewing the parents of the victims, those who died from really dangerous hazing rituals, was the hardest part of the process, and it still is, because there are no words, really, to comfort a parent who’s lost their child to hazing. And it’s like, I can feel the pain, I can feel the grief that many of the family members still have, who have lost their children. I interviewed a family, the parents of Ryan Abley. The parents names are Jack and Wendy Abely, and I spoke to them on the one-year anniversary of their child’s death from hazing. And it was very difficult. It was very difficult. I mean, they were both extremely raw during the interview, understandably so. As a filmmaker, I’ve never really had to, I guess, interview grieving parents in that way before. So it just requires a level of compassion, a level of sensitivity and care, and just knowing that the only thing I could do is uplift them and try to do justice and keep their name alive through the film.
CL: One part that I thought was really powerful was when you were interviewing Marc Lamont Hill. Do you agree with his sentiments?
BH: I could tell that Mark was wrestling with this in real time as we were talking to each other. Mark is an exceptionally smart guy, and we had a really good conversation about it, but I think I have to let Mark speak for himself to discuss it. I can just say that from my vantage point as the filmmaker and the person who engaged conversation with Mark, I really feel like those are the kind of conversations that need to be had. I mean, he pushed me, he challenged me, he asked me some good questions, but I think these are the kind of debates that we should have, and hopefully, these debates will transform us.
…but I think these are the kind of debates that we should have, and hopefully, these debates will transform us.
CL: Fair enough. It also seems like those candid discussions may be had amongst line brothers, but not throughout the greater organizations.
BH: I think what Mark says is very important. And it’s important because, again, we’re talking about trying to figure out how we can shift culture. One way that you shift culture is to have people sort of stand up, speak out, and express their honest feelings about something that’s no longer working, something that no longer benefits us, that does not really serve our best interests any longer. You know what I mean? To be honest about that. And I think the more people who have the honesty and the integrity to actually speak up, I think the more space it creates for other people to do the same. Mark is a very influential person, and people respect him. And there’s something about that level of vulnerability that he expressed in being able to kind of pivot and not take a hard line stance and to show that he was actually thinking through in real time what he was thinking and feeling. I think that’s going to be really powerful for average viewers who watch and who may be in a very similar position as Marc.
CL: The film mentioned often these are young people left to their devices and things got out of control, what do you think is a solution?
BH: I think leadership is very important. The leadership in any given organization really creates the culture. And if you have people within that culture who are vehemently opposed to hazing culture, then that’s just the tone for the rest of the organization. A lot of times the loudest voices are the most ignorant voices or the voices who are steering the ship in the wrong direction. And there are always people in that same space who don’t agree with those ignorant voices but aren’t confident enough, don’t have this level of self-esteem or self-confidence to actually stand up and challenge it. I know I did it when I was in my early days in the fraternity, and I know how difficult it is to actually speak up against that coach. It’s very hard, extremely hard.
But I’m in a graduate chapter myself now, and we had a basalis in my chapter who during meetings would always stand up and talk about how we need to move the fraternity in another direction and that it was a new day and that you can’t do the same things that we have historically done, that there’s too much at stake, too much at risk. And it was a new day for us to create new ways of bringing new members into the organization. And so I just think it takes that kind of leadership that kind of leadership gave me [and] it made me feel more comfortable making this film because I knew that there were other men who thought like I did, who felt like I did, and so I knew that there would be other people out there like that who would also be supportive. It’s really about raising your voice.
Hazing’s TV broadcast premiere is on September 12 at 10pm on PBS’ Independent Lens.