La Tropical

Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist David Turnley's first feature, photographed in shimmering black and white, is a portrait of the Havana dance hall "La Tropical," but is first and foremost a celebration of Cuban dance and music. But while it initially seems to flirt dangerously with cliched images of red-hot mamas and sinuous tipos suaves, it goes on...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist David Turnley's first feature, photographed in shimmering black and white, is a portrait of the Havana dance hall "La Tropical," but is first and foremost a celebration of Cuban dance and music. But while it initially seems to flirt dangerously with cliched images of red-hot mamas and sinuous tipos suaves, it goes on to address thorny issues of race and class with unusual directness. Named after a hugely popular musician and bandleader of the 1940s, '50s and '60s, the Salon Rosado Benny More, as La Tropical is officially known, was born of purely commercial considerations. Opened in a slum neighborhood during the segregated 1950s by a beer company, La Tropical survived the Cuban Revolution; its patrons remained overwhelmingly Afro-Cuban, but it became a powerhouse showcase for new bands and songs. La Tropical's cafe features an elaborate floor show that echoes the lavish, Las Vegas-style revues popular in Batista-era nightclubs, but employs local dancers of all colors and pays competitive wages. Turnley's interviews with regulars and employees keep circling around to race and politics: Eloy Machado Perez — "the poet of the gutter" — declares the Revolution the best thing that ever happened to the dark-skinned Cubans, opening up opportunities previously available only to the light-complected and European-looking. Sisters Diana, Martha, Odalys and Lysette Caro — collectively the La Caro Band — praise socialized medicine; one has a daughter with cerebral palsy whose care has kept her alive long enough to celebrate her quince. Cabaret dancer Daivel laments that his girlfriend Ayme's family disapproves of him because he's dark, and encourages her to rekindle a relationship with her Italian ex. Flamenco-company director Acela Rodriguez Santiago laments that the influence of dance halls like La Tropical convinced the world that Cuban music and dance are synonymous with Afro-Cuban, forgetting the legacy of traditional Spanish culture. Classical guitarist Luis Manuel, whose girlfriend is one of Santiago's dancers, complains that the commercial dominance of Afro-Cuban music is the reason he's too broke even to buy his own guitar. But it's not all politics: Turnley also features a charming elderly woman nicknamed "Tiki Tiki," who's been dancing since she was 10 and still goes to La Tropical every Sunday, showing off a limber hippy-shake that could put women half her age to shame.

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  • Released: 2002
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist David Turnley's first feature, photographed in shimmering black and white, is a portrait of the Havana dance hall "La Tropical," but is first and foremost a celebration of Cuban dance and music. But while it initially… (more)

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