In late 1960, not quite two years after the revolutionary victory of 1959, two young Cuban filmmakers, Sabá Cabrera Infante and Orlando Jiménez Leal, set out with a handheld camera, a small recording device and a limited supply of film to record shots of Havana nightlife. The result was P.M., an experimental black-and-white film of under 15 minutes, featuring working-class revelers drinking and dancing in the city’s popular bars. Hardly, one might think, the makings of a subversive piece of art. Yet this short experimental film has gone down in history as the catalyst for one of the early crises of the Cuban Revolution.
‘The P.M. affair’ has haunted the history of revolutionary cultural politics ever since. But competing accounts of the film and its fate point as well to a sexual politics that would also come to haunt the revolutionary regime in later years. The language used by P.M.‘s critics either explicitly or implicitly linked the anonymous people in the film to activities considered counter-revolutionary, including prostitution and homosexuality. By 1961 aggressive campaigns were being waged against the sexually ‘suspect’ patrons of Cuba’s urban night scene, most notably sex workers and men who had sex with men.
In spring 1961 the directors sought permission to screen P.M. in public. The newly formed Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC) denied their request. This was the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the sensual scenes in P.M. were not the images of the new Cuba the government wanted to project to the world. The venues and figures represented in the film were reminiscent of what revolutionary leaders considered the worst of pre-revolutionary Havana: American tourism, organised crime and rampant vice.
The confiscation of P.M. provoked cries of censorship from Cuba’s intelligentsia, and the ensuing fracas led to a series of meetings at Havana’s National Library – chaired by Fidel Castro and culminating in one of his most famous speeches: ‘Words to the Intellectuals’. The encounter did little to resolve the competing cultural and political visions of the revolutionary vanguard and the artistic avant-garde. Over the following years, the directors of P.M. and many of their defenders left Cuba for exile.
It matters not whether P.M. actually shows homosexuality or sex work. The bars it features may well have been sites of casual sexual labour, and they were almost certainly places of relative safety for Havana dwellers of different genders and sexualities. Histories of other cities teach us that working-class clubs often bring together marginalized sexual communities. In her marvellous testimonio of life as a black woman in twentieth-century Cuba, Reyita Castillo, recalls raising her children in a working-class neighbourhood alongside women who sold sex and men in relationships with other men.
The fact that most of the people in P.M. were black has frequently been noted, though few of the film’s defenders or critics have located it in a longer history of race and racism in Cuba. But the repeated claims that P.M. depicts prostitution and drug use are conditioned by racist stereotypes as much as they are by lingering assumptions that popular bars were places of counter-revolutionary activities and sexual deviance. The black female bodies in the film have been interpreted as sex workers by viewers who watch the film through the lens of the long and strong association between prostitution and the figure of the mulata woman, a link that harks back to Cuba’s colonial slave society.
A half-century on, commentary on the ‘P.M. affair’ continues to focus on the competing accounts and interpretations of intellectuals, artists and politicians – that is, Cuban elites living either in exile or on the island. Yes: this story is, on one level, about ‘Cinema, power and censorship‘. But re-viewing P.M. we are also reminded of a larger, and largely untold, intersectional history of race, class, gender and sexuality during the early years of the Cuban Revolution.
 An important exception is Pedro Pérez Sarduy ‘An Infant in English Breeches: What Really Happened in Cuba.’ Red Letters 15 (1983).
Carrie Hamilton is Reader in History at the University of Roehampton in London. She is on the editorial collective of Feminist Review and is the author of Sexual Revolutions in Cuba: Passion, Politics, and Memory.
NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at www.notchesblog.com.
For permission to publish any NOTCHES post in whole or in part please contact the editors at NotchesBlog@gmail.com