Here’s a review of the Spike Lee produced Colombian-American movie “Manos Sucias”

It has become a trope in Colombian cinema to deal with stories of violence, especially of drug-related violence. In 1998, La vendedora de rosas captured perfectly the destroyed lives of dealers and junkies in the slums of Medellín; La virgen de los sicarios and Rosario Tijeras (book adaptations from 2000 and 2005, respectively) dealt with the hitmen employed by cartels to do the dirty work; María Full of Grace (a Colombo-Ecuadorian-American production from 2004) showed the plight of mulas used to smuggle cocaine into the United States. And since then we’ve had many stories of drug lords, addicts, middlemen, and the gang violence created by the illegality of certain substances.

So, also, it has become a trope in Colombian cinema criticism to ask if we haven’t had enough already. If there aren’t other stories to tell in the country; if Colombians don’t also love and live and forget away from drugs and the businesses and violence associated to them. Don’t we have other problems? What about racism, elitism, abject poverty, state abandonment? What else can we say about drugs? Or even heartbreak, isolation and depression?

Many of us grew up safely in our modern, urban, middle-to-upper-class settings, away from the issues brought forth by things such as the War on Drugs and Plan Colombia. And, from this perspective, it seems fair to ask “where are our stories? Can we see our country depicted as we’ve known it, devoid of this peripheral violence?”.

Certainly some films have addressed this–Gordo, calvo y bajito (2011), for example, is a story of annoying co-workers and pointless existence, Sofía y el terco (2012) is a story of love, loyalty and liberation–but their existence isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be understood as, a dichotomy between their “drug” films and “our” stories.

International laws and regulations regarding certain substances have, undeniably, shaped every aspect of Colombian life for the past four decades: our politics, our economy, our social interactions, our diplomacy, our way of understanding our own identity, and our way of relating to each other. Even if this doesn’t affect all of us directly, it is not something we can glance over, it is not something we can sweep under the rug.

Stories of drug-related violence are still commonplace in Colombian cinema not only because they are successful (this seems to be what international audiences–unfortunately still the measurement of Colombian films worth–want to see), but also because they are stories that are still shaping our country. These are the lives that many of our compatriots are living.

Yet, is there anything more to say? Any new angles? Any new stories? Manos sucias attempts just that. Directed by American Josek Wladyka and produced by his NYU professor Spike Lee, this is the story of two estranged brothers from Buenaventura who inadvertently meet again in a boat to smuggle drug towards the northern Colombian Pacific coast.

The movie is, in summary, the story of their eventful journey together, but, in essence, it is the story of a disenfranchised Colombia, of a country where many still feel that there is no other choice but to join these ranks.

Buenaventura is Colombia’s biggest city on the Pacific Ocean, and it is the country’s biggest port. Its industry and commerce brings in millions in revenue. But its position in a mostly underdeveloped, unregulated region of the country with great access to waterways, has meant that various illegal groups have sought and have been able to take control of it, and that the population there (which is 90% black) has rarely seen an increase in their quality of life.

The movie decides to humanize this daily struggle. Its characters are not stereotypical gangsters, even if their descriptions might seem so: Jacobo (Jarlin Martínez) is the older brother, who loves salsa, doesn’t understand young people’s “fads,” has been in the game for too long and dreams of saving enough to retire and move to Bogotá. Delio (Cristian Advíncula) is the younger brother, who is too inexperienced for this kind of job, wants to be a rapper, and is in it because he wants to provide for his wife and their young son.

Throughout the movie, it is revealed that they are, simply, typical Bonaverenses. In their conversations in the boat you can feel their dreams and heartbreaks, their stories of happiness and suffering, their shared love of soccer and their common understanding of their blackness. These are not two evil criminal men who want to defy law and authority. These are two guys who weren’t offered any other way. They are the first line of drug-crime violence: those who are easily sacrificed and forgotten, those who are not in it because of greed, but because they need it, but yet are not beyond hurting others to protect what little they have earned, because this is as much as they can get.

Manos sucias is a story of state abandonment and of good people trying to get by, even if that means becoming bad people. A story of grief and self-preservation. It is a Colombian story and a story of humans, and this point is advanced tremendously by the solid acting by Advíncula (who made his cinematic debut here) and Martínez.

The story feels authentic, even if it was originally scripted in English and then translated into Colombian-Pacific Spanish. Only a few minor mistranslations stand out (such as one of the characters calling people from the United States “americanos,” when most Colombians would simply say “gringos”), but they are lost in the sincere portrayal of Martínez and Advíncula, who are both from Buenaventura and understand perfectly who are they talking about and whom they are talking to.

Paramilitaries and guerrilleros appear on the film too, but they are not used to signify the state of the country, they are there merely to explain the context of harshness these men have to live through. And it is true that a lot of aspects of the culture of Buenaventura–such as its soccer madness, its infatuation with salsa choke, or its incredible production of hip-hop artists–are only briefly mentioned. But this is not the point for now. This is a very brief and direct story, and for what it tries to do, it works perfectly.

Manos Sucias will be screened in the United States throughout April and May. Check here for the schedule. Watch the trailer below.

Pablo Medina Uribe

Pablo Medina Uribe co-edits Latin America is a Country. He doesn’t have a middle name.

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