Proposing to reveal a side of Cuba rarely seen by North Americans, this visually engaging, ethically shaky doc does so in spite of itself. A chronicle of the burgeoning hip-hop movement in east Havana’s suburban ghetto, the film profiles a trio of rappers—Soandry, Mikki Flow and Magyori Martinez Veitia—whose influences come courtesy of CDs and radio and TV broadcasts from the States.
Paradoxically skimpy on actual music, East of Havana focuses instead on the deprivation endured by Cubans under Communism. Fair enough, but directors Emilia Menocal and Jauretsi Saizabitoria (and, presumably, coproducer Charlize Theron) stack the deck. The country’s economic free fall after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc is highlighted (along with television footage of Castro at his most doddering), while the ongoing U.S. embargo against Cuba gets barely a nod. In so polemical a framework, the musicians’ talk of rap’s revolutionary qualities comes off as piped.
The film transcends this rigid “Cuba bad, America good” dichotomy courtesy of cinematographer Christophe Lanzenberg’s wordless, revealingly fluid travelogue shots and, of course, its snippets of the region’s rumba-tinged brand of hip-hop. But in the end, East of Havana lacks the grace or intelligence to let the music speak for itself. (Opens Fri; IFC Center.) — Mark Holcomb