This past weekend, Donald Glover released his surprise short film, “Guava Island.” This self-branded “island thriller” marked another collaboration between Glover and “Atlanta” team Hiro Murai and Stephan Glover. Premiering after his headlining Coachella set last Saturday, the film’s plot follows Glover’s character trying to keep the island’s spirit alive by organizing a music festival.
Following an atmospheric introduction to the island’s beauty and carefree culture, Kofi (Rihanna) transitions from telling the island’s background story to revealing what her and Deni’s (Glover), dreams are; Kofi yearns to leave the island with Deni and start a new life, free from the chains of the island’s greed. Deni, however, wishes to write a song to reunite the island and remind the people of the magic that Guava had. The rest of the film follows Deni, whether it’s through his voice on the radio or with the camera, on the day that he is trying to set up the festival.
Guava Island is run by the Red family, who are attempting to maximize the profits of the island, exploiting its residents along the way. When Red Cargo, the head exploiter, hears that Deni is trying to organize a music festival on a Saturday night, which would subsequently cause the island workers to miss work on Sunday, he becomes irate. Red decides to bring Deni in and offer him a sum of money to leave the island forever, fulfilling Kofi’s dream, but Deni, as expected, tries to organize the festival anyways.
When following Deni through the island, it seems as if the island isn’t as divided or oppressed as we were initially made to believe. The islanders seem generally happy and greet each other throughout the film. If anything, Deni’s music is already uniting the people so his festival plans seem mundane. The people who really don’t want to be on the island are trying to work and save money to leave, and when one of said people tells Deni that, he breaks into a toned-down rendition of “This is America.” This performance conveys the idea that corruption is everywhere and you can only be your own boss at a price. Ultimately, the tension between the desire for freedom from exploitation through escape and freedom through art is meant to be the driving force behind the film’s story. Unfortunately, poor execution means that this theme generally doesn’t hit as hard as intended.
The plotline’s ultimate insignificance, as well as poor writing, never really allows the audience to connect with the characters. For example, when Deni decides to continue planning the festival instead of leaving the island he kills Kofi’s dream. From an audience perspective, however, it doesn’t even matter because Rihanna’s character was so underdeveloped anyways. The other big cast name is Letitia Wright, whose role is unfortunately so minor that it’s easy to forget she was in this film. A lack of relatable or emotionally investment-worthy characters really dents the film’s ability to make the audience care.
This is all very unfortunate, because “Guava Island” is a beautiful film.With filming taking place in Cuba, director Murai’s appreciation of beauty and aesthetic shines through. Having directed many of Glover’s works such as “Atlanta,” and the music videos for “3005” and “This is America,” Murai captured the beauty of Cuba and the essence of colorful island life spectacularly. The vivid cinematography, coupled with the summer-y soundtrack Gambino came out with last year, creates a bold and vibrant duo. The only drastic cutaway from this aura they created was when Deni broke out into “This is America.” This, however, was a necessary deviation in order to convey the film’s underlying message about exploitation.
At its core, “Guava Island” just seems like a bunch of Childish Gambino music videos with talking in between. Glover is a man of many talents and has proved himself as such so many times, but his attempts at combining his artistic endeavors just doesn’t hit as well. If Glover had decided to forgo the poor storyline and just release the music as a series of music videos it would have been a fantastic piece. The film is still a piece of art, and as such it is meant to be interpreted differently by different viewers. As a film, however, it falls flat, failing to deliver a meaningful or engaging plot that keeps the viewer interested or invested in its narrative of art versus exploitation.
Verdict: “Guava Island” would have been fantastic as a series of music videos but as a “musical film” it just doesn’t deliver. Flat characters and an underdeveloped plot leave the film’s potential unfulfilled.