Donald Glover's Music Movie 'Guava Island' Is a Curious Blunder, Despite Rihanna
Ten years ago, Donald Glover co-wrote, scored and starred in his first feature film, Mystery Team. It was a kooky, absurdist movie created with his fellow Derrick Comedy members Dominic Dierkes and DC Pierson that blended childhood naivete with somewhat jarring doses of darkness from the real world. Glover's subsequent long-term stint as Troy Barnes on the cult comedy favorite Community cemented his persona as a corny, childlike yet lovable goofball. His musical offerings as Childish Gambino provided listeners with much of the same: His breakout mixtape Culdesac and his first official album Camp were full of dorky wordplay, emo-inspired wailing about the girls he wanted and could never get, and a relatable narrative of black nerdiness and feelings of isolation.
Then in 2013, something changed. Glover released Because the Internet, his most ambitious album to date. Within it, he managed to marry his goofball tendencies with a much more serious, surprisingly poignant inner darkness fueled by depression and imposter syndrome. He released the album with an accompanying screenplay and a short film called Clapping for the Wrong Reasons, directed by his now-frequent collaborator Hiro Murai, a music video director (Bloc Party, St. Vincent, Earl Sweatshirt) making a leap to cinema.
Unfortunately, Clapping for the Wrong Reasons was an endless 25 minutes, full of blank stares, vague monologues, and aimless performances. It chronicles the wandering of a young rapper, bored with his wealth, sleepwalking physically and mentally through his lavish life. It's very much a mumblecore film with all the pluses and minuses that apply to the genre: conversational dialogue, no discernable plot, and an abrupt ending. The only aspect that sets it apart from the work of the Duplass Brothers or Joe Swanberg is its focus on the millennial ennui of non-white people. Looking back on it, Because the Internet is a much stronger narrative on its own, rendering the film an unnecessary indulgence. The best thing about Clapping for the Wrong Reasons is that it presumably provided Glover with an emotional blueprint to graft onto his most impressive artistic endeavor, FX's Atlanta. Murai even went on to serve as the series' primary director, strengthening his long-form storytelling muscles.
With a short film and critically-acclaimed comedy-drama series under his belt, Glover began cultivating an artistic mystique, transforming his personal narrative into that of a darkly funny mastermind with a healthy beard and enough smoldering charisma to successfully step into the shoes of Billy Dee Williams. His transformation was bolstered by Glover's close working relationship with Murai and his brother Stephen. This history is important when considering the trio's most recent artistic offering, Amazon Prime's Guava Island, an unfortunate blunder of style over substance with good intentions.
There are many confounding aspects to address in Guava Island. The film borrows cultural aspects from several Carribean countries, without any cohesive cultural identity for its titular island. Everyone on the island speaks with different accents and sometimes even different languages altogether. The filmmakers made headlines by shooting in Cuba, only to produce a finished product that could have been filmed frankly anywhere. And for a feature with such ambitious mythology, the story itself is puzzlingly short with underdeveloped characters and painfully forced musical numbers. An ill-timed and thematically irrelevant performance of "This Is America" is especially jarring, stopping the film dead to recreate elements of Glover's Grammy Award-winning video. Truthfully, the aesthetics of the film don't mesh well with Glover's general musical style (with the exception of "California," an awkward track that sounds as inauthentic as Guava Island looks).
The film tells the story of Deni (Glover), a young musician who wants to liberate the people of Guava Island from their endless workdays with an all-night music festival. Deni's girlfriend Kofi (Rihanna) supports his efforts but encourages him to be cautious, as the film's villain, Red Cargo (Nonso Anozie), is powerful enough to prevent the festival and hurt Deni. The slim cast is rounded out by Yara (Letitia Wright), a lively single mother who works with Kofi at the silk factory. Kofi explains in voiceover that Guava used to be a peaceful place blessed by the gods, but the discovery of gorgeous blue silk on the island changed everything. Love for the beautiful silk quickly soured into war over control of it. This backstory revealed in imaginative 2D animation that feels more alive than the live action film that follows.
Guava Island plays out as masculine fantasy, fueled by artistic hubris and an odd fixation with traditional gender roles. Deni wants to get the island back to the way it was, but it's unclear as to how he knows what it used to be like and how he can bring it back. There are no scenes where Deni is given a vision of the past that compels him to change the future. He does it simply because he is the de facto protagonist, despite the fact that Kofi is our only real window into the mythology of Guava Island. Kofi seems to be intentionally sidelined, robbing the film of its rightful protagonist in favor of a male character. Kofi's connection to the island is much more believable than Deni's. It's a much quieter, more understanding love. As Kofi, Rihanna channels a nurturing spirit, giving everything to her small, mostly symbolic role. As Glover overacts, Rihanna displays a quiet comfort with the material. As an artist from Barbados, Rihanna displays a much more intuitive relationship with Caribbean culture. Knowing this, it's especially criminal that her character doesn't sing a single note in the film.
Ultimately, Guava Island feels like a compromise between the extended music video it clearly is and the feature film it desperately wants to be. Compare Guava Island to last year's Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe's film with a shorter runtime that manages to showcase both a boundary-breaking album and a radical queer sci-fi narrative with images that meld perfectly with the music it attempts to represent. In contrast, Guava Island is a meandering 55 minutes, introducing characters it refuses to develop in service of an unconvincing hero narrative. Murai provides viewers with a lush color palette but is otherwise subdued behind the camera. The movie looks too straightforward to be fantasy and too undercooked to be taken seriously.
Guava Island's most damning sin is that it's unconvincing -- both aesthetically and in its assertion of Deni as a selfless, romantic, revolutionary hero. In the end, the only character worth caring about is Kofi. It's unfortunate the filmmakers couldn't see that.