Film

Donald Glover’s Guava Island Is a Visual Delight, and That’s the Point

Guava Island is a fun, colorful, anti-capitalist romp that leaves viewers smiling.

Donald Glover (image via Wikimedia Commons)
Donald Glover (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Last Thursday at Coachella, Donald Glover debuted his 55-minute movie, Guava Island, filmed secretly in Cuba with Rihanna and director Hiro Murai, written by Stephen Glover, and also starring Letitia Wright. The film was released on Amazon Prime on Saturday, where Prime members not in attendance at Coachella could stream the film free for a limited time. Guava Island is a colorful anti-capitalist tale with a cast that is altogether a delight to see on screen.

The film features an entirely Black cast, a casting that was no doubt intentional considering Cuba’s large Afro-Latinx population.

Guava Island opens with an animated segment in which Glover and Rihanna’s characters, Deni Maroon and Kofi Novia, respectively, are introduced amid a backdrop of bright color — blues, reds, purples, greens. Deni wants to write a song as beautiful as Kofi, he says, to which she quips to the audience, “Fortunately, no song is that beautiful,” before switching over to live action.

Rihanna (image via Wikimedia Commons)
Rihanna (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Kofi’s friend Yara Love is played by the wholly underused Letitia Wright (and on that note, Rihanna, too, could have featured more prominently than she does). The accents in the film, though, are somewhat inconsistent, with Glover’s accent going in and out for the entire length of the movie, no one’s accent ever really matching up at all, but this is a minor issue in a film so stylistically captivating.

Guava Island is ruled by a businessman named Red, played by Nonso Anozie. Deni wants to host a music festival for the people of the island, giving them a day off of work, but Red, a ruthless capitalist, will allow no such thing, smashing Deni’s guitar and telling him to cancel the festival. The film is also broken up by a series of musical numbers, the first being Childish Gambino’s “This is America.” When one of Deni’s co-workers at the docks discusses money and begins to daydream about life in America, Deni tells him that Guava Island is no different from America, with people working day after day for little pay in an attempt to survive. “This is America,” he chants, recreating the eerie dance number from his music video.

The film’s message is clear and a little too on the nose, lambasting a capitalist society in which people work for next to nothing to make ends meet. Guava Island is beautiful — a paradise on the beach — but its inhabitants are unable to enjoy it, living under the rule of a businessman who refuses to grant them even, a single day off.

“We live in paradise, but none of us have the time or means to actually live here,” Deni says.

In another musical number, Deni, without his guitar now, serenades Kofi to another Childish Gambino song, “Feels Like Summer.” Kofi watches him, thoroughly unimpressed as only Rihanna can be, but smirks nonetheless at the goofy, mechanical dancing that Glover leans into so well. Though there isn’t strong romantic chemistry between Glover and Rihanna, the two of them are thoroughly captivating on screen, and they convince me that they care deeply for one another.

Guava Island, in addition to being an anti-capitalist film, is also about art and music. Deni works at the docks, but that isn’t what he wants his life to be. Kofi calls him an artist and says that artists want “freedom.” He refuses to adhere to Red’s policies and wants to bring music to the people. An obvious message, Guava Island tells us there’s more to life than work, and Deni becomes a symbol for the power of art to fight against injustice. The festival, in many ways, becomes a protest against the authoritarian ruler of the island.

It is ironic, though, that a film with such a strong anti-capitalist message would stream on Amazon, a company that has become symbolic of the late-stage capitalist society in which we now live — and has also been criticized for some of the same authoritarian workplace conditions that Red implements in the film. And, of course, the film is only available to paying Prime members. Even the choice of premiering at Coachella is odd, as the music festival, despite its reputation for free-spirited art, is still a major player in our capitalist world.

Other reviews have critiqued the film for having “more style than substance,” but I would argue that this misses the point entirely. While Murai directs Childish Gambino’s music videos and most episodes of Glover’s TV series Atlanta, with Guava Island, Glover and Murai don’t seem to be making a film meant to have the same emotional weight and heavy symbolism as Atlanta. Guava Island is meant to be about style — color, music, hope. The film, after all, premiered at Coachella. In many ways, Guava Island accomplishes exactly what it set out: create a fun, colorful, anti-capitalist romp that leaves viewers smiling. Even the ending, which in many ways could have been a devastating, emotional blow, is transformed into a victory, as the people of the island band together in a wave of blue and yellow hues, Rihanna dazzling the audience with her deadpan last words, said behind an intricate, beaded blue veil: “We got our day.”

Guava Island is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

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