Dubbed “A Childish Gambino Film,” Guava Island defies both genre and definition. Is it a movie or a visual album? Take your pick. A thriller? If it is, it’s the breeziest one out there, with elements of African fable and tropical noir blended in for good measure. Such is the multifaceted nature of Childish Gambino, the musical alter ego of Island’s star and producer, Donald Glover.
Guava Island is the latest fruit of Glover’s creative partnership with writer Stephen Glover and director Hiro Murai, both of Atlanta fame. The premise is fairly simple: A young musician named Deni Maroon (Glover) wants to throw a music festival to give his poor, overworked community one night of freedom in spite of the corporate dictator (Nonso Anozie) who controls their island. Meanwhile, Deni’s girlfriend Kofi (Rihanna, in the first role that really gives her her due as an actress) contemplates their diverging dreams and what it means for their future.
It’s a familiar story, but what helps Guava Island stand apart is that it skillfully weaves a handful of Childish Gambino’s songs into the narrative, most notably his iconic 2018 track, “This is America.” The video (also directed by Murai) is recreated here as an even more explicit conceptual lesson about race and capitalism; meanwhile, “Summertime Magic” becomes a serenade to Rihanna, because who else could that dreamy song possibly be about?
Similarly, it comes as no surprise that Guava Island is as layered with meaning as Childish Gambino’s previous work, but aural and visual. Everything from the film’s color palette to the musical numbers’ choreography contains multitudes. The historian in me noted the significance of Deni’s name in particular; maroons were escaped African and indigenous slaves in the Caribbean and South / Central America who created their own communities where white colonizers couldn’t reach them. Most famous among them was Nanny of the Maroons, one of Jamaica’s most celebrated folk heroes.
Deni’s name is no coincidence, and neither is the tragic end to his story. A voiceover by Rihanna bookends the film, telling her audience that dreams can come true, but the price of them is often high and sometimes ultimate. Despite this, Guava Island ends on a hopeful note, with a life celebrated rather than mourned and an oppressor undermined rather than victorious.
This optimism in part helps make up for the thinness of the plot and characters; one can’t help but think the film could have benefited from an extra half-hour to expand on Kofi and her friendship with fellow sweatshop worker Yara (Letitia Wright), for instance. At the same time, though, the richness of Christian Sprenger’s cinematography, Lucio Seixas’s production design, and Mobolaji Dawodu’s costuming make Guava Island’s 55 minutes feel full, and fully realized.
Guava Island is available on Amazon Prime for free, but only for a limited time. Short and sweet, it’s a visual delicacy from start to finish and well worth a view from longtime fans of Childish Gambino / Donald Glover and newcomers alike.