In the ongoing cinematic endeavor to find the universal in the specific, a new piece of kinetic film making from Colombia emerges that has grasped my undivided attention. For many North Americans, Colombia evokes imagery of drug cartels, narco-terrorism, and extreme poverty. Recent efforts and progress has been made in trying to change that preconception (the upcoming critically acclaimed film Birds of Passage is one prominent example.) In the case of the new film We Are the Heat, the reclamation of that narrative comes by re-contextualizing a Latin American crime story crime within the template and context of famous African-American “Hood” movies. Moreover, it emphasizes its distinct Afro-Latin heritage by showcasing the explosive power of modern Colombian dancehall battles, a frenetic mix of cutting edge Hip-Hop and traditional Colombian dance routines.
In the port city of Buenaventura, a group of close friends seek to escape the slums with the help of music and dance via their dancehall crew called “Buenaventura Mon Amur” or BMA for short. However, in a city engulfed in criminal enterprise, corrupt government and racist policing, the odds are forever stacked against Black Boys trying to make ends meet. The movie opens with Harvey (Duván Arizala), the star performer of the crew, retreating back to his home, battered and bruised after a failed illicit job. Burdened by the pressure to do whatever it takes to provide for his lover and their daughter, dance is his only solace. This love is shared by crew member Freddy (Jose Luis Preciado) and his DJ younger brother “Baby” Alex (Manuel Riascos Mena). Freddy has some fire movies of his own, but his hot headed impulsive nature brings unnecessary trouble. Steven (Miguel Ángel Banguela), the third crew dancer, hopes to live a peaceful life as barber by day and dancer by night, but pressure from a crooked local cop may throw a wrench in his plans and the future of the BMA dance crew.
Beset on all sides by inequity and avarice, the dance hall ought to be the one place where they are free from the troubles of the world. Unfortunately, their biggest obstacle lays directly in front of them on the other side of the dance floor. The top rival dance crew known as “The Royal Niggas” is led by Ribok, a superfly battle dancer who is also a straight up stone cold gangster lieutenant of the local Buenaventura crime boss. Ribok (Julio Valencia) is dangerous, not only because he’ll do whatever it takes to win on the dance floor, but also because of his terrifying power and influence over the local populace as a gangster, a power that not even the BMA boys can avoid. The young dancers are catapulted into a dangerous game of criminal activity, and as the movie progresses, the hope of escape is threatened with each twist and turn.
We Are the Heat was pitched to me as a cross between City Of God and the Step Up series or You Got Served. Overall, I’d say that’s a pretty accurate description, as the movie is filled with electrifying dance numbers while also being heavily imbued with the trappings of a genuine Gangster Ass Movie. That said, I found the film also seemed to be directly influenced by hood classics such as Juice (1992) or Above the Rim (1994), in which black youth talented with a particular skill striving to overcome the boundaries of their circumstances clash with the institutional racism and violence of their surroundings that tries to hold them down. There’s even elements of more contemporary Urban crime stories centered on music such as 8 Mile and Hustle & Flow, wherein family drama and a hard environment breeds musical creativity.
With all those influences in mind, I cannot stress enough how spectacularly unique the Colombian dancehall elements are. The soundtrack is an eclectic mix of Hip-Hop, Reggaeton, and traditional Colombian rhythm. This amalgamation of old and new is beautifully expressed in an early scene where Freddy and Baby record their grandfather playing an old school marimba, using the traditional melody as sample to create a hot electronic dance beat. Grandfather and grandson express their love for each other and shared elation in using their musical heritage to make an expression and exclamation of modern Colombia.
When it’s time to actually battle, the dancing is out of this world. The basis of hip hop breakdancing and modern pop n’ lock routines is clear, but it is infused with a distinct style that harkens back to their African roots. In the fury to best their opponents, it felt to me like the dancers were at times possessed with the spirit of our ancestors, channeling that force into new manifestations of physicality and identity. As well, I was surprised to see a certain sense of gender fluidity to the dancing. The clashing crews exert chest pounding machismo and martial athleticism, but their routines also incorporate moments of suave strutting and feminine fluidity. Male dancers perform the spinning summersaults of a Kung Fu warrior laced with the salacious Dutty Wining of a Jamaican dancehall queen, and it is magnificent sight to behold.
The dancing wouldn’t be quite as mesmerizing if it wasn’t filmed properly, and thankfully the intensity of each battle is successfully captured thanks to great camera work. There is an immediate and almost dangerous intimacy to each battle, while still leaving plenty of room in the frame to capture every exhilarating movement. You can almost feel the heat and sweat between each dancer as the roar of the music and the crowd reverberates almost as powerfully as the sense of overwhelming tension in the dynamite dance battle finale.
We Are the Heat is a terrific feature that is equally adept at gritty street imagery and high flying dance music video spectacle. The lead actors pull off a phenomenal job of imbuing their characters with realistic anguish and rage, transforming that raw emotion into formidable physical feats. Just the same, it is a rare achievement when a movie presents a villain that could believably demolish you in a dance-off just as easily as he could in a gangland back alley beat down. We Are The Heat is a grand new addition to the pantheon of black-lead gangster movies, the evolution of dancing on film, and a badge of honor for the Afro-Latin people of Colombia that they should be proud to showcase to the world. Make sure you get in on the action and see this celebration of culture as soon as you can.
We Are The Heat is available on streaming beginning on February 26th on ITunes via this link: https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/we-are-the-heat-subtitled/id1450884961