As Grammy winner Donald Glover was performing as Childish Gambino at Coachella, he gave attendees a festival within a festival via a 55-minute Amazon Original film he debuted last Thursday.
For one, the mystery project promised to be the capper to a terrific year for the multi-hyphenate star, who hit the Billboard No. 1 for “This Is America” in 2018, which then went on to become the first rap song to win both Song of the Year and Record of the Year at the 2019 Grammys.
The film, which is now streaming for Amazon Prime customers, begins with a lush animation that sets the stage for the drama to follow: The Guava Island of legend was once a paradise created by the gods, where everyone was free, and resources were abundant and shared.
After a violent coup, the island came to be ruled by a cruel factory owner who exploits the two greatest assets of the island, a worm that spins blue silk, and the island’s now indentured population. Glover plays Deni, a joyful musician who runs afoul of the factory owner named Red (played by Nonso Anonzie), as he plans to throw an unauthorized music festival for the island’s hard-working people. Rihanna is perfect as Deni’s skeptical girlfriend, and Letitia Wright plays her best friend in a supporting role.
The people spin blue. The oppressor is named Red. Get it?
For purists, the reviews have been mixed. The film is either a delightfully long music video or a too-short, imperfectly realized film – besides being light on plot and character development, Rihanna doesn’t sing and Letitia Wright doesn’t have much to do.
“Guava Island is a rom-com about the ravages of capitalism,” says The Ringer’s Rob Harvilla, who found the film wanting. “[I]t leaves its deceptively heavy themes underexplored, and its alluring characters (and actors) underserved.”
And yet the film is so beautiful, and the music so vital, that it’s hard to fault Glover and his team for creating a project that’s difficult to classify. It’s shot in the parts of Cuba most foreigners never get to see, and the filmmakers have included local talent of all ages, with a very deliberate nod to the island’s Afro-Caribbean heritage. That alone is a revelation.
And while the film is not a direct descendant of the “This is America” video, it offers a powerful dotted line.
The original version of the song was in part, an unflinching look at America’s troubled history with race and celebrity. “I think in a lot of ways what Glover is trying to do is really bring our focus and our attention to black violence, black entertainment [and] the way they’re juxtaposed in society,” says NPR’s hip-hop journalist Rodney Carmichael
Glover and ensemble launch into a shorter version of the song in the film. In the context of Guava Islandese, the song takes on the bigger themes of global colonialism and equity. It’s a show stopper.
The scene begins as a musical answer to the capitalist ambitions of a poor dock worker who dreams of escaping his dead-end life on the island to make his fortune in America. “This is America,” says Glover’s Deni, pointing to the earth. “Guava’s no different than any other country. America is a concept. Anywhere where, in order to get rich, you have to make someone else richer, is America.”
While it would be easy to dismiss Glover’s critique of colonialism and capitalism as naive, he’s adding his influential voice to that of other major brands expressing similar concerns.
Consider Patagonia, a clothing maker operating under a very different set of values than Guava’s Red.
The company recently decided to decline to make branded logowear for corporate customers who do not share their “Earth-friendly capitalist agenda.” Patagonia jackets and vests are so popular among tech companies, says The San Francisco Chronicle, “Patch on a corporate logo, and you’ve got what passes for a uniform in San Francisco’s tech sector.”
In a statement, Patagonia expressed “reluctance” to do business with companies involved with finance, oil and drilling, politics, and other industries that don’t match their bigger mission. Instead, they’ll prioritize other Certified B corporations, an official designation for organizations who promise to use their profits to do good in the world.
Glover’s Deni states his big mission fairly simply. “What’s wrong with me,” he says “is that we live in paradise but none of us have the time or the means to actually live here.”
That’s also what’s wrong with millions of people around the globe. While the workers of Guava Island would be prevented from wearing a Red-branded Patagonia vest, for a brief moment, they got something better: Revolution as joyful noise.