There’s an interesting scene in Juan Andres Arango’s La Playa D.C., where main character Tomas and his older brother El Chaco walk through a ritzy mall, and are accosted by security guards who question their presence. After being thrown out of the mall, El Chaco angrily exclaims that he left Colombia because of incidents like that. Colombia has the third largest black/African population in the western hemisphere, behind North America and Brazil. Like these countries, there’s been systematic attempts at erasing the presence of these people and their cultures.
A teenage Tomas, played by Luis Carlos Guevara, defies his mother and stepfather’s wishes to become a security guard, and instead embarks on an artistic journey in cutting hair. The barber trade documented in this film is one of the stronger threads, showing how culture is preserved through one’s clippers. Haircut designs that American audiences would associate with the early hip hop days, are shown here to carry a special brand of appeal and masculinity. That special brand of appeal carries over into a scene in a blue-tinted club where black Colombians grind with each other to their own hip hop music. It is rather beautiful to see this diasporic variation on a common theme.
As Tomas attempts street-survival and tries to locate his younger drug-addicted brother Jairo, he reunites with El Chaco who just returned from “The North,” walking with a swagger that when shot from the back, adds a nice layer of personality to the story. When the camera is positioned behind him and more importantly behind Tomas, we navigate a heavily divided terrain in a way that reverses a dominant perspective for one that we rarely, if ever, occupy.
This perspective makes the film’s content important and nuanced, but also frustrating at times. Guevara, with a perfectly angled face and keen features doesn’t always register emotional beats, leaving some key moments without the intended impact. The realist aesthetic complements the performative style, but doesn’t always do the job.
There’s also a fascinating way that water operates during interludes where Tomas, Jairo, and his mother sit alongside a rushing river as she braids a “map” in his brother’s hair, telling the story of how slaves would use braiding to “find their way back.” In the same way that Tomas’ learns to use haircutting to preserve, his mother’s braiding signals a sort of return to a time past, an origin that cannot be returned to even as it is continually referenced and dreamt about by the characters. Their forced migration as the result of the civil war, into the dense space of Bogota has in a way disrupted that origin, that culture, causing Tomas and the people around him to preserve life by escaping, assimilating, or cutting hair.
La Playa D.C., named for the beach in Colombia’s capital district, lets us into a world we are not often given access to in cinema. Though it isn’t perfect, this story signals something we need more of, portraying people who have existed and survived in a country where their stories, like the Afro-Colombian soundtrack, ring loud and distinct.