Shooting a film about Cuba in black and white is risky. Mikheil Kalatozishvili got away with it because his beatific photography for I Am Cuba worked as a poetic mourning wail. Ditto Leon Ichaso, whose Bitter Sugar used monochrome symbolically as a sign of political exasperation. But La Tropical, directed and photographed by Pulitzer-Prize winning photojournalist David Turnely, feels confusing. When visual dispatches from Cuba are so rare, Turnley’s decision to shoot on video and flip the grayscale switch feels objectionable. The film’s cinematographic face is glossy but not so fine as to suggest Turnley hasn’t fully grappled with the photogenic range of Cuba’s racial politics. (His still photographs, Life-magazine pretty but not particularly expressive of the Cuban island’s unique distress, serve as uninquisitive transitional filler throughout the film, provoking what’s-the-point responses.)
Bursting with impassioned music and dancing, the film attempts to take the pulse of the Salón Rosado Benny Moré, otherwise known as La Tropical, through interviews with patrons and performers. Turnely succumbs to cliché observation by portraying all Cubans as hip-swiveling espresso bunnies (even the disabled ones) without seriously tapping into the historical and spiritual root for their urge to move. His many crowd shots inside La Tropical are “possessed” but anonymous, averse to lingering on the human face for too long. This aloof perspective carries over to the “artful” interviews: subjects are only heard in voiceover, and when a young man likens his relationship with his girlfriend to “a typical American film about love,” the home scenes begin to adopt the saccharine sheen and pace of a Boyz II Men video.
The success of The Lost City indicates that Cubans are so hungry for a dramatization of their lives that they’ll accept anything handed to them, no matter the taste. La Tropical may be the first documentary about Cuba to seriously address the island republic’s complex, lingering racial problems. Turnely does not take a stance regarding the revolution but he acknowledges that the hypocritical Fidel Castro means something different to white Cubans than he does to the marginal black culture that benefited more from the redistribution of wealth and opportunities the revolution supplied. Because Turnely understands the rationale behind the white population’s contempt for blacks and their more expressive form of dancing, the film provides a deeper scan of Cuba’s political nightmare and fatigue that shames Andy Garcia. When Turnely acknowledges the islands political gray zone, his black-and-white color scheme comes to make sense.