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Review of Alpha Class documentary: reprinted

Alpha Class
Directed by Danny McManus
Co-Produced by Danny McManus and Joseph Forte
Released March 9

There is an emblematic scene in the documentary that encapsulates the height of frat life and ultimately the tone of the film. An immense sea of brothers is dancing the night away in the courtyard of an apartment complex. Red Solo cups are carelessly strewn about. Some of the brothers make out with pretty girls as the camera zooms in to capture the action. The air is rife with the sound of carousing, which becomes deafening as the night goes on. This would be the perfect depiction of the Greek Bacchanalia minus the togas.

When you think of frats nowadays, you think of parties. You think of men in muscle tanks doing keg stands as a group of their buddies cheer them on. While Alpha Class does show these scenes quite often, it’s not the the focus of the movie. Instead, filmmaker McManus focused on the aspect of frat life that is often overlooked: the enthusiasm of joining a community.

Of course, the film never shies away from the grimy parts of frat life either. Hazing, the process in which pledges prove their worth to the fraternity, is extensively looked at in the beginning of the film. Brothers Forte, Jamie, and Bobby describe their hazing experiences for Phi Kappa Psi. No time to spare, the pledges are shuttled into harsh militaristic drills by the Vice President of Pledges. “Balling,” they called it, or weeding out the weak, was at the center of it all. The trials that the upperclassmen put their pledges through were horrific, dehumanizing. However, a brother comments, “It’s fucked up, but it’s tradition.” In order for the pledges to “know their place,” they are subjected to acts that border on sadism.

All the while, the brothers interviewed for this portion never flinched from telling the truth. They told their horror stories with the lightness of a comedy routine. Undeniably frat-centric in its documentation, Alpha Class wants to show that a true sense of brotherhood is established at the end of grueling initiation. Unfortunately, Phi Psi wouldn’t last long afterwards. Hit with allegations of hazing, the chapter’s charter was revoked.

The next part of the film is a little bit cringey at points. Forte and other brothers decide to start a colony, a group of brothers that could become a new frat. Reminiscent of cheesy college movies, Alpha Class describes the journey to become the fraternity Phi Sigma Kappa. I had the impression that it was supposed to be inspirational, but the film fell flat. The scenes often felt disjointed, made even more apparent by the awkward choice of background music. Even more frustrating were the moments of aggressive male chauvinism depicted in the scenes, which made me tense up.

The film as a whole lacked a momentum that could have made moments feel more bearable. Devolving into a tangle of anecdotes and cutaways, Alpha Classmakes it hard to fall in love with or be interested in any of the people in the film. It couples this with plot points that just seem to drag on for far too long.

It eventually acquired an intrigue that made the story more interesting. Bouncing back from nothing, Phi Sigma Kappa gets to work throwing its parties once more. This time around, hazing would be a thing of the past. The brothers would have a new community, one revolving around aspects of leadership and unity. Antiquated ideas of wild partying still remain, though, and ultimately damages Phi Sigma Kappa’s attempt to break away from tradition. In the Big Brother-Little Brother scene, we see the brothers in the zone. They dance, laugh, and call over strippers.

But Joseph Forte says it best: “You join Greek life, you’re destined to fail.” In time, even this new fraternity would have its charter revoked. Forte, Bobby, and other brothers would be hit with allegations that caused them to be placed on suspension. In this long chain of dominoes, even the frat house was demolished along with all the other frats on that street. Fifty years of culture and history are destroyed for retail space.

While this documentary didn’t necessarily add anything new to my understanding of fraternities, it was an interesting glance into how the brothers viewed their world. It shows the viewers that fraternities aren’t always about the parties, but the politics as well. And that there are always more things than just the hazing horror stories that populate the news. Filled with parties, booze and girls, this is truly a brave new world.

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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