WITH EXCEPTION TO THE COLORFUL CINEMATOGRAPHY, Guava Island falls short of the quick excitement I mustered up roughly five minutes before watching this semi-short, semi-musical film. An Instagram story posted by one of the Blindspotting actors shared the word of “A Childish Gambino Film” listed temporarily for free on Amazon Prime. What I quickly gathered before watching: Guava Island stars Donald Glover (a.k.a. Childish Gambino) as Deni Maroon, a naturally talented musician and somewhat of a folk-hero to the local Guavan islanders, who work seven days per week for a despotic, sweatshop factory called Red Cargo.
Essentially, Deni wants to host a Saturday-night music festival against the command of Red Cargo’s leader (played by Nonso Anozie), who fears that Saturday-night fun would interrupt Sunday-day productivity. Only Red Cargo seems to benefit from this industrial arrangement: by no means is Red Cargo’s work fulfilling to the workers, as visually represented by the factory’s assembly-line grayness oppressively consuming Guava’s natural, tropical colors. We see the workers deal with the unfulfilling, oppressive nature of their work in a few ways, namely by either dicking off while the supervisor’s away or by faithfully subordinating the present to a dreamy future in the golden fields of America. One standout line by Deni sums up the island’s existential dilemma: “We live in paradise but none of us have the time or the means to actually live here.”
Guava Island initially premiered at the Coachella Festival following Childish Gambino’s set, thus giving the movie’s musical elements a sort of visceral meta-importance to the viewer — or at least the Coachella viewer. The “meta” part is what annoys me here: it’s self-congratulatory on behalf of Childish Gambino, the festival, and the festival-goers — and in a creepy, cynical way, this meta factor transforms the social commentary delivered by Deni’s “We live in paradise” complaint into a commercial for Coachella.
Had Childish Gambino produced and performed completely new music for the movie, that’d be one thing. Instead, given Guava Island’s short run-time and Coachella context, the film’s rehash of Gambino hits feels more like an advertisement than a genuine rally-cry for music lovers to “Rise Up!”
In my analysis on “This Is America,” I praise Childish Gambino for offering us something more morally complex and self-aware than Beyoncé’s comparable “In Formation” music video. Unfortunately, Guava Island sacrifices this complexity and gets “in formation,” so to speak, regressing from a provocative video on the depraved amorality of American media to a Coachella-friendly music movie. And it’s a sad, strange reversal: I liked that Donald Glover wasn’t at this year’s GRAMMYs to accept awards for “This Is America,” as I saw his absence as a sort of “practice what you preach” reconciliation between Donald Glover, the entertainer, and Childish Gambino’s critique against American entertainment. The meta-layers involved in “This Is America” work as there’s no disconnect between Donald Glover and his alter ego Childish Gambino.
Guava Island disrupts that connection by commercializing “This Is America.”
Not to say that commercials can’t be art: in the movie, Deni sings a radio commercial for Red Cargo that’s just as pretty as his own music, demonstrating the difficulty in discerning art from advertising. Depending on how cynical you want to get, it is possible to view all art as self-promotional on the artist’s behalf. (Although, I don’t subscribe to this philosophy, given the selfless, monk-like discipline adopted by even the most egomaniacal artists to create artistic masterpieces.) Yet, it doesn’t require an exceptionally cynical worldview to question the purpose of this scene in a movie about the moral importance of music festivals that’s premiering at an expensive music festival.
But while I’m annoyed by the meta-importance of Guava Island, I’d be much more forgiving of all that if the film’s artistic vision surpassed (or at least met) its commercial needs. As it stands, it’s much more interesting to fill in the blanks on this story than to dissect what’s given — e.g., Deni’s love interest, Kofi Novia (played by Rihanna), seems more an intimate friend than a lifelong lover to Deni. Plus, this is a movie in which people sing and Rihanna’s character sings not once …what the fuck??
With a vibrant, fictional island as the setting, Guava Island has the magical realist potential of Gabriel García Márquez’ fictional Macondo of One Hundred Years of Solitude. And I’d be genuinely interested in a full-blown saga on the Macondo scale to flesh out these characters’ lives and histories.
The visual motif of caged bluebirds is sadly pretty and fitting to the film’s themes of industrial exploitation and Edenic isolation. Yes, it’s an overused cliché, yet I find few things more soothing to the soul than a well-played cliché, particularly if it’s bird-related; and, again, the colorful Guava Island, directed by the semi-surrealist visionary Hiro Murai, has the potential to pull off the “caged songbird” trope with a fresh aesthetic, seen from a fresh perspective.
However, once uncaged, the songbird isn’t simply free but wild, and wild nature does not abide by the simplistic Blue vs. Red, Love vs. War dualism proposed by this film. What of Purple, the pregnant, fleshy blend of Blue and Red? Or the War-like sadomasochistic pain-pleasures that augment Love with our inescapable Lust? (Or is Love an augmentation of Lust?) Guava Island attempts a compromise in Deni’s blue shirt + red shorts combo, signifying Deni as a sort of Love Warrior; yet, his platonic romance with Kofi and his passive heroism drastically lower the vibrancy of his colors.
In short, I think Deni’s existential complaint is incomplete: even if we had the time and means, our inherent wilderness is too unstable to “live in paradise.” This truth is succinctly laid out in the first story of the first book of the Bible — or a more pertinent, contemporary allegory: in Killmonger’s provoked dissolution of Black Panther’s utopic Wakanda.
By limiting its scope to a binary Us vs. Them moral template, Guava Island sweeps this truth under an otherwise meaningfully colorful aesthetic and a cheaply agreeable social comment on industrialism, pinning the aggression solely on them and not poor us, who had to pay roughly $500 per ticket to stick it to those greedy plutocrats at Coachella.