When Donald Glover said that his next album would be his last and that he would be retiring the Childish Gambino alter ego, things changed. What would have been a normal album cycle turned into an elongated farewell to one of the most fascinating musical acts of the decade. Gambino released the controversial “This Is America”; announced a tour where he debuted several new songs; performed the still unreleased “Saturday” on SNL; and released dual singles (“Feels Like Summer”; “Summertime Magic,” review here). In the midst of all this music, there was no official word on an album. Furthermore, pictures of Glover and Rihanna on the set of some sort of project kicked speculation into high gear. That mystery project was Guava Island, a music-driven film that stars Donald Glover (Atlanta; Community), Rihanna (Ocean’s 8; Home), and Letitia Wright (Black Mirror; Black Panther).
Directed by Hiro Murai and written by Stephen Glover, Guava Island tells the story of a young musician, Deni (Glover), who plans to put on a festival for the people on the island. Guava is a gorgeous island, but the people who live there are chained by work so they never get to enjoy it. The conflict that arises due to Deni’s festival is the fact that the people will not show up to work the next day after the festival. Guava Island is a clear commentary on the inhumane and emotionless qualities of capitalism. Guava reimagines Gambino’s post-“Awaken, My Love!” music in the context of this story, thus adding more depth and character to the songs.
Back in May 2018 when “This Is America” debuted, Gambino faced valid criticism about exploiting and exoticizing black pain and trauma for the white liberal gaze. The song would go on to break streaming records and be Gambino’s first #1 single, but not without irking a lot of people for a plethora of reasons. A couple of months later when Gambino released, the Summer Pack, those records seemed to be simple songs to celebrate the summertime. However in the context of Guava Island, “This Is America” becomes a commentary on America as a concept or idea — anywhere where to get rich one has to make someone else richer. It’s a stunning visual sequence that is well choreographed and tightly executed. “Summertime Magic” is still a love song, but it is more a means of escapism from the constraints of Guava on Kofi (Rihanna) and Deni’s relationship. Finally, the outro of “Feels Like Summer” holds new weight after the impending threat of government-sanctioned retaliation against Deni’s festival becomes clear. Deni croons “Oh, I hope we change/I really thought this world could change/But it seems like the same,” in a beautiful moment of muted anger, sadness, and disgust.
Because the plot is so painfully simple and predictable, Guava Island relies heavily on music to keep from dragging. Glover is a charismatic actor, as evidenced by his 2017 Emmy win for Outstanding Comedy Actor, but the dialogue is so dry and uninspired that he overacts at times. Moreover, Letitia Wright was severely underutilized; Wright was relegated to the small supporting role of Yara despite being an Emmy nominee and BAFTA winner. One can blame the weak screenplay for how underdeveloped her character is, not to mention she essentially disappears in the last 15 minutes or so. Guava is a fictional island, presumably somewhere in the Caribbean. However, the accents are egregiously inconsistent among the cast, not to mention that Glover loses his accent completely by the last third of the film. There are some highlights: the film is well edited and the choice to employ a grainy filter gives Guava just the right amount of edge.
Capitalism and its horrors have inspired countless works of art, and Guava Island seeks to join that lineage. Unfortunately, the film is brimming with potential, but ultimately falls short of what Glover is capable of. Although it is far from Glover’s strongest work, Guava Island is, at best, a testament to how artists can re-envision their music into something grander than previously understood.