This morning, we were treated to the new trailer for “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba,” a biopic exploring — you guessed it! — Ernest Hemingway’s time on the island. Again. And to hear The Hollywood Reporter tell it, it’s “the first film shot in Cuba in over 50 years“:
This is, of course, incorrect. Cuba has its own film industry. Cuban filmmakers have indeed been making movies the last five decades. Let’s remember the 1999 documentary “Buena Vista Social Club,” an international co-production among Cuba and the United States, as well as Germany, the UK, and France. But, those movies weren’t about Hemingway.
For decades, there’s been a fascination with — and a tendency to mythologize — the author’s relationship to Cuba. The Atlantic’s lengthy “Hemingway in Cuba,” published in August 1965 (at a time when Cuban exiles were fleeing the island in the wake of the 1959 Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro’s rise to power) paints Cuba as a backdrop populated with limestone villas, sun-kissed seas and a Canary Island native, Gregorio, who lets “Papa” know when there’s “feesh” nearby. ?
The trend of presenting Cuba as a lush, mysterious backdrop for white, American stories continues. In fact, the IMDb page for “Papa” literally describes it as a story about witnessing Hemingway’s “decline into depression and alcoholism with the backdrop of the Cuban Revolution.” It’s this mode of thinking that brings us such time-honored gems as the inexplicable “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights” and fashion spreads wherein inspiration from a recent trip to Cuba manifests in the form of a $14,410 chest of drawers, Gucci bags and yet another Hemingway:
Because if Hemingway’s Cuba is anything at all, it’s fashionable. In 2015, Refinery29’s Connie Wang offered a look at what lifting sanctions between Cuba and the U.S. may mean for the fashion industry, an industry that, like film, has a long history of using different cultures as not only inspiration and references, but as literal background fodder. For example, here was English designer Stella McCartney’s take on Cuba-inspired fun:
On Monday, Stella McCartney threw a garden party to present a beautiful resort collection, in which she paired her billowing chiffon gowns, knotted-up separates, and sultry spring looks with her signature floral-sprayed, cruelty-free accessories. The theme of the party was Cuba, and the collection was fêted with chocolate cigars, rum drinks, a Son Cubano band, and two costumed men dressed up like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. (When asked about the intention here, the Stella team responded that the theme was nothing more than just for fun.)
“If anything,” Wang adds, “using two of the most recognizable faces of communism to support what’s inherently a capitalist industry feels like an exercise in mixed messages.”
And that’s just the trouble. The messaging is off and muddled. It appears there’s no real desire on the part of creators and artists in the fields of film or fashion, to add context, to place Cuban history and Cuba’s present at the forefront. With Hemingway as our proxy, it becomes clear that there’s no desire to actually know Cuba, but to experience it vicariously and at a great — safe, clean, Instagram-ready — distance.
There is a shallowness inherent in not wanting to understand what figures like Castro or Guevara represent before using them in art about Cuba made by, and for, non-Cubans. There is a longing, but a lack of curiosity. There’s a willingness to view, but not to engage. It’s Cuba as costuming, as beautiful and mysterious and maybe as a slightly dangerous window-dressing.
As sanctions lift and Cubans, both on the island and within the U.S. (groups that are neither monolithic nor necessarily in agreement, it should be noted), increasingly have their say and make more highly visible art of their own, this trend of pushing Cuba back and rendering it a one-dimensional, painted backdrop of palm trees and old cars cannot be sustained. Cuba, and Cubans, will stand firmly in the foreground.
But, hey. For the moment, keep enjoying your cigar jokes, your Che-themed parties and your Hemingway-guided traipses into a Cuba that never quite did exist.
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