On the colonial gaze and old futures

During the first round of U.S.-Cuba talks, Brian Williams reported live from Havana for NBC Nightly News. As part of the January 21 broadcast, Williams interviewed Paula Laura Mendi, a freelance producer, for her perspective on the recently announced changes in U.S. policy and their implications for Cuba. He introduced the interview segment from his broadcast location near the intersection of Prado and Malecón, the city’s seawall, as seen below.

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Williams introduces the segment.

As the interview segment begins, we first see Paula’s face against the backdrop of a worn door and wall of peeling paint. The tight focus highlights her upper body against the dilapidated building. The crop encourages the viewer to see the building as perhaps colonial, but definitely a ruin.

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The first frame of the interview.

In the next shot, we see the bodies of Brian and Paula, aligned with the door frame. Only the width of the scratched door separates them. Brian’s proximity to Paula infuses the interview with an odd intimacy. He also leans on the doorstep with his left foot and opens his body in Paula’s direction.

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The interview begins.

At other moments in the interview, Brian gestures emphatically in the direction of Paula, further decreasing the distance between them. As viewers, we don’t know why producers scouted this location or decided on this framing. The staging, though, suggests Brian has intimate access to Paula. In contrast, the next day, reporter Andrea Mitchell interviewed a group of U.S. students studying in Havana, and they sat comfortably around a coffee table in a nondescript outdoor setting.

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And continues.

The staging also immediately reminded of Spanish artist Victor Patricio Landaluze’s representations of mulatas in nineteenth-century Cuba, part of his large repertoire of scenes of Cuban society. As a “painter of Cuban life,” per the art historian Carmen Ramos, Landaluze produced an array of illustrations of for newspapers, magazines, and lithographs. In his many representations of people of color, Landaluze often places them on the street, near building doorways and windows, standing close together.


Victor Patricio Landaluze, Soldado con una mulata (Solder with a Mulata), c. 1870, oil on canvas

He infused many of the representations of people of color — both enslaved and free — with a satiric and biting edge as if simultaneously providing an antidote for the racial anxiety that pervaded colonial society. At the time I saw the Brian Williams interview, I also happened to be rereading Jill Lane’s article on contemporary “smoking habanera” tourist figurines which draw, in part, on Landaluze’s illustrations.


Victor Patricio Landaluze, Calesero cortejando una cocinera (The Carriage Driver Courting a Cook), c. 1870, oil on canvas

Lane, in particular, discusses Landaluze’s illustrations of mulatas, particularly smoking mulatas, as images that codify a vision of the “transgressive” mulata. She notes the following about the above image:

“Rather than completing her errand, the cook (likely a house slave) instead dallies on the street, smoking and talking with the carriage driver. The mulata with the soldier seems to have no purpose at all, other than smoking in the street. It is this unauthorized or excess leisure that marks the smoking mulata: she is transgressive in her refusal of work and in her refusal of the sexual ideology of whitening, but nonetheless she remains more titillating than threatening.”[1]

landaluze soldado

Victor Patricio Landaluze, Soldado con una mulata (Solder with a Mulata), c. 1870, oil on canvas

She argues that Landaluze fixes the availability of the mulata with his white, male gaze — a trope that later resurfaces in early 20th century re-imaginings of the sexual and free mulata. The gaze appears again, even if fortuitously, in the staging of the MSNBC interview. Yet, Paula works. She fulfills a purpose, to borrow Lane’s language. She does not dally. Brian indeed notes Paula’s own professional identity as a freelance producer.

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We near the end of the interview.

She has opinions, too. Laura discusses how Cubans should understand the impending arrival of more visitors from the United States. She underscores the potential for change, even calling it a new kind of revolution. She seems to exist, then, outside the trope’s insistence on the physical availability of the Cuban woman, but we, as viewers, still see Brian and Paula through Landaluze’s lens. Brian’s presence, standing so closely next to her, still suggests access — perhaps not to the physical but to the intellectual and emotional conundrum of the future. He moves toward Laura as if to suggest that they figure out that future, and the new revolution, together.

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Even closer together.

[1] Jill Lane, “Smoking Habaneras, or A Cuban Struggle with Racial Demons,” Social Text 28 (3) Fall 2010: 27.



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