Childish Gambino releases surprise music-film hybrid Guava Island on Amazon


By Patrick Sullivan, Film & TV Editor

Donald Glover’s latest creative venture, co-starring Rihanna, comes out of nowhere and the 55 minute film is a new narrative, visual support to a collection of songs.

On 24 November 2018, a trailer premiered with Donald Glover and Rihanna together at PHAROS Festival, New Zealand. Little was heard about Guava Island until two days ago when Glover published a rare tweet teasing its release on Amazon. And now it’s released, 55 minutes long and available on Amazon Prime Video.

Don’t get me wrong, this is no ‘Lemonade’. Beyoncé’s sixth studio album of 12 songs was supported by a 65 minute film aired on HBO, split into 11 chapters and featuring poetry, prose, Malcolm X samples, and striking visual images. Instead, Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, has produced a medium length, narrative film showcasing his most recent release, ‘Summer Pack’, which only consists of two songs: ‘Summertime Magic’ and ‘Feels Like Summer’.

The cartoonish animation style of the opening credits is similar to the actual music video of accompanying song, ‘Feels Like Summer’, and, while at times there is enough here to consider it as more, Guava Island still feels like just one long music video. The plot is thin: the fictional island of Guava used to be magical and untouched, but when the Reds took control of the native clayworm’s beautiful blue silk, the island descended into a family regime leading to Red’s Cargo in the present day. Deni (Glover), a radio musician, plans to unite the island with his songs and host a festival despite Red’s objection. Kofi (Rihanna), his childhood romance and now girlfriend, is newly pregnant and dreams of a prosperous life abroad.

The opening moments, narrated by Rihanna, are some of Guava Island’s best in colourful animation. We learn about the history of Guava and the storytelling ethos of a family-based community. ‘This place, so filled with the magic of Gods and untouched by man’s hand, blossomed and bore fruit unlike any place on Earth.’ Rihanna’s smooth voice is poetic and perfect for narration of this kind, the opening moments equally intriguing and romantic set to Childish Gambino’s sumptuous music.

When it shifts to live action, it fails to carry the same wonder despite Donald Glover’s undeniable likeability. His character, Deni, takes over the main perspective and is well-loved by those around him, so much so that all high drama evaporates into upbeat dramedy. An early scene when he’s rushing to work is interrupted by three masked children, one with a drill, threatening to mug him. ‘Dodo, I know it’s you. Victor, I can see your face. Mapi, I’m helping out with church today, why you robbing me?’ The sweet humour diffuses any growing tension.

YouTube / Amazon Prime Video

Guava Island was written by Glover’s brother, Stephen, and directed by Hiro Murai, both of whom have worked with Donald Glover extensively on his fantastic TV series, Atlanta (2016-). Where that is brave enough to redefine narrative conventions, however, this resorts to being a supportive vehicle for Glover’s musical and visual brand, which peaked in public interest upon the release of the music video for ‘This Is America’ in May last year.

As a fan of both Glover’s music, especially early tracks ‘Heartbeat’ and ‘L.E.S.’ on his 2011 album ‘Camp’, and his acting work in Community (2009-2015), Guava Island is thoroughly enjoyable for how it embellishes his performance ability. It may operate as a gateway into the Childish fan group, starring the global superstar Rihanna and featuring this year’s Bafta Rising Star, Letitia Wright, but the creativity here is channelled into integrating the singing and dancing. ‘This Is America’ is the best inclusion as a harsh reality check for one of Deni’s co-workers who is hopeful of opportunities in the US.

‘We just want to party… Party just for you. We just want your money… Money just from you.’ The lyrics work here, portraying the US as a false dream away from the reality of a seven day working week for the citizens of Guava, enforced by the menacing ruler, Red (Nonso Anozie). In a later conversation between Deni and Red about the former’s planned festival distracting workers from the task at hand, Deni alludes again to the importance of family on this fictional island: ‘My grandfather used to say, “The man who doesn’t enjoy the cracking of pistachio shells, doesn’t enjoy the work of a full life.”’

Of course, Guava Island is filmed on a real life island, Cuba, and the beauty of the setting and the bustle of the markets and festivals is indicative of the existing communities. And so are the settings of overworked people at the sewing factory, where Kofi and Yara (Wright) work, and the docks, where Deni has to toil to subside his radio career. Both perspectives are shown as Murai puts a focus on the so-so romantic chemistry of stars Glover and Rihanna in a picturesque scene by the sea, before later showing radios in the midst of a range of scenes across island life.

The key moment of drama follows the festival itself, where an opportunity to use Childish Gambino’s live energy to gradually raise the stakes of Deni’s dramatic arc is wasted despite the inclusion of relevant lyrics. Instead, the film jumps the gun straight to high end drama. The ensuing turn of realism is still the best cinematically the execution of this concept has to offer. Pressed against a stone wall, the crisp two-tone lighting shows the beady sweat on Deni’s forehead, Glover grimacing. A variety of close up, mid range, and long range framing, with backs turned and sparse sound, this two minute sequence is the only time Guava Island fulfils its Amazon advertisement as a ‘tropical thriller’.

Otherwise, the music, colour and setting of this artistic experiment are simply here to enjoy rather than experience. In the opening credits, Kofi’s narration speaks of the duel truths, ‘love and war’ and the palette of blue versus red is the final seal on the matter. There is little gripping drama here, but the Donald Glover artistic brand continues to expand into new territories.

Guava Island is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.

Featured Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

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Patrick Sullivan

Epigram Co-Editor-in-Chief 2019-20. Engineering student turned film critic turned news writer - enjoying the most brilliantly strange route into the media world.