A Tropical Chill: Guava Island Review

LAS VEGAS, NV - SEPTEMBER 21: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY; NO COMMERCIAL USE) (EDITORS NOTE: This image has been converted to black and white. Color version available.) Childish Gambino performs onstage during the 2018 iHeartRadio Music Festival at T-Mobile Arena on September 21, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images for iHeartMedia)

Guava Island is a vintage-style, tropics-set film produced by Donald Glover (known musically as Childish Gambino) starring himself, Rihanna, and Letitia Wright, and Nonzo Anozie. It was written by his brother, Stephen, and directed by Hiro Murai, who has a plethora of music videos under his belt but also collaborates with Stephen and Donald on the TV Show Atlanta.

The film was made largely in secret in Cuba, with no prior details or publicity released before Glover posted cryptic shots from the set on social media on Wednesday. It was revealed that Amazon Studios had taken up Glover on the film before he even had a script finalized and it was partially financed by Regency Enterprises. After premiering it at the end of his first weekend of Coachella set (dubbed as a ‘Childish Gambino film’), it was live streamed on their platform. The 55-minute film will continue to be presented throughout the two-week festival. It was released on Amazon Prime Video and made available for free for 36 hours starting on the morning of April 13.

With Glover and Rihanna attached, it is yet another film attached to superstar musicians, even though Rihanna provides no musical contribution to the film and it doesn’t look like she’ll be on any tracks related to it. Guava Island features already released Childish Gambino songs “Summertime Magic,” “Feels Like Summer,” “This Is America,” and the new tracks “Die With You,” “Time,” and “Saturday.” Ahead, I will summarize the film, analyze some quick themes I noted, and review my opinions on it.

Guava Island Review

Synopsis

The film begins with Kofi (Rihanna) describing her childhood, and how she fell for Deni Maroon (Donald Glover) when he would play music outside of her window. As adults, they live together, and Rihanna’s character works as a seamstress in a factory while Glover’s is a radio host and also works at a factory. Nonzo Anozie’s character is Red Cargo, who describes himself as “in charge of this island” and controls every aspect of life for the islanders. Deni is a rising musician and popular figure, and he is secretly throwing an underground festival.

*** SPOILERS ***

The morning of the festival, three kids attempt to rob Deni on his way to work, but he convinces them that they shouldn’t and that he doesn’t have money for them, anyway. He knows the kids, and tells them about the festival, but once he gets to work he is forcefully taken to Red’s office where he is told that he cannot allow him to perform because it would prevent most of his workers from showing up on Sunday, and so Red pays him 10,000 dollars as an “offer” to not show up, breaking his signature guitar and kicking him out along the way.

At the same time, Kofi struggles with how to reveal to her partner that she is pregnant, worried that the news will upset him because “artists like their freedom,” as he describes to friend and co-worker, Yara Love (Letitia Wright).

Despite the rumor flying around that Deni was going to cancel show up to the festival, he announces otherwise on his five o’clock radio show, going on with the festival as planned. He takes the stage with a frightened Kofi watching from the crowd. After one song, a masked figure (Michael Cardenas) fires a gun at Deni, but they miss and he is able to run away. However, he ends up in a dark, abandoned building and is distracted by a bird, where the assassin catches up to him and murders him.

The next morning, Red goes to his factory cheerfully, only to find that it is completely empty, as no one has shown up to work following Deni’s death. He goes to the docks where the festival was held to find the entire island in mourning of their fallen musician. His casket is carried down the roads, and Kofi, in a stunning blue dress, stares down Red, only saying to him “We got our day.”

Kofi ends, narrating to an unseen child, “now I get to tell you a different story from the one that my mother told me…” to which the child responds, “I like that story.”

Analysis – Motifs

Here are some of the immediate themes I noted on my first look of the film:

  • Time

Deni Maroon is constantly late. When he first goes to work and is chastised for being late by Emani (Betiza Bistmark Calderón), his response being that “It’s not late if everyone does it.” For the festival, Deni takes the stage late as well, telling the crowd “well, I’m always late.”

This is a direct statement regarding the stereotype that people of color – especially black people – are always late, known informally as “colored people time.” Deni is an artist and also carefree throughout the film, two identities which society often portrays its common perpetrators of tardiness. Deni’s character is a contrarian and rebel against the standards of society, alluded to by his lateness and his nonchalant attitude toward it. Guava Island as a whole is described as a state of dictatorship, and so Deni’s tardiness is most likely one of the few, reoccurring rebellions he can make while surviving under the rule of Red. Deni also hosts his radio show starting at 5:00 PM, which in America is the generally accepted time for the end of business each day. The islanders, or at least those in the factory, do not share this experience and they often work past that time, but Deni’s show and music are wildly popular among them.

The conflict between Deni and the majority of the island, including its rulers, is parallel to the life of those in authoritarian and military states around the world, like Cuba, where Guava Island was filmed – but also the societal restraints in democracies and other countries. Specifically, in America, being late is taken as a sign of laziness or disrespect. Disregard for time can cost most people career opportunities, shelter, food, money, and many other requirements of survival. Lack of advancements in these areas and tardiness itself can lead to ostracizing from society – but some, especially music artists or celebrities, are often immune to this, and it is even come to be expected of them like it is of Deni.

  • America

The United States is a direct influence on the lives of these islanders. It is directly discussed in an early scene, when Victor, Deni’s co-worker, describes his dream to make enough money to leave the island for America. Deni scoffs at this, saying “This is America…[because] America is a concept,” continuing to explain that any place where a person or small minority can obtain large influence or power is no different than the United States.

The dream of going to America is very common to islanders in real life from all around the globe, but especially in the Caribbean and South America. The United States is often described as the “leader of the free world,” and one of the most democratic states on the planet, where anyone can get rich, but it is often criticized for its “policing” approach to foreign policy and the financial influence on its government. The lifestyle of what every day Guava Islanders endure, like many island and small countries, looks the opposite of those in America, but their ruling parties assert similar power and control over almost everything that society does. By large the biggest example is Red’s attempt to prevent Deni from performing at the festival for his own power and then punishing him with death for defying those wishes. Red’s ultimate goal was to prevent a hit to his bottom line by preventing an event that may contradict with his needs.

The story of Guava Island is that freedom is not defined by a style of government or a place, America in this instance, but by the will of the people. Following Deni’s death, no one shows up to work despite knowing they were supposed to, having the direct opposite effect as Red intended. In the end, the Islanders are free to do as they please, with Red watching helplessly. Freedom was achieved without the people having to leave for America but costing them their most free spirit.

Guava Island, like Glover’s song “This is America,” is a direct challenge of the power structure and idolization of the United States. The song, its music video, and the scene it is performed in the film all describe a place with gun violence, excessive death, censorship, and deplorable conditions – while Guava Island is that place in the film, by Gambino’s assessment it is also America and many, many other places.

  • Names

The naming of each character, like in most films, provides unique messages. Most of the names in part correspond to a specific color, which I’ll get to later.

Deni is a subunit currency of money on the island of Macedonia, a Brazilian language, and also an Italian/Greek-derived name meaning a “person of two races.” Glover himself is biracial, and he is a very multifaceted person, so this is a great way to describe him; his character also talks about the “little money” he has, and Deni is a Swahili word for debt. Deni is also close to Denis, which is related to the name Dionysus, the code name the film used in production. This is the name of the Greek god of wine, theater, and fertility.

Rihanna’s character is named Kofi, which is a West African name describing those ‘born on Friday.’ Friday is often symbolized as a day of achievement, ending, and freedom, as in most societies it signals the end of the work week. Her last name, Novia, is Spanish for ‘girlfriend’ and highly common in Spanish languages as a form of “fiancée,” and this also connects to the use of Spanish throughout the film, specifically by Deni when speaking to Kofi.

Yara – played by Letitia Wright – is a name with multiple meanings, describing strength in the Persian language and a ‘mother of waters’ in Brazilian mythology. Both are accurate attributes to Yara’s character, who constantly uplifts Kofi’s spirits and is a mother of her own and often. Her son is Kito (Alan Jael Abreu), a Swahili word for Jewel, and also a Japanese surname.

Emani is derived from Imani, describing “certitude of the unseen;” during her only scene, Emani warns that Deni will get be killed for his tardiness before Red was seen on screen, foreshadowing the concluding result of the film.

Red’s last name is Cargo – radio hosts like Deni have to repeat the state-sponsored message “Red cargo is the best cargo” during their shows. Cargo is often the main source of income for small and island nations, and on Guava Island the seamstress factory appears to be one of the more important production places as it is large in size and people.

  • Colors

Almost every movie uses color to further drive home its message, but the use of colors in Guava Island is especially unique. The story takes place on an island in the summer, so much of it features vibrant, bright shades of blue, orange, red and brown. There are more specific uses of colors that convey different things – even in the names of the characters.

Maroon, Deni’s last name, is a color often attributed to compassionate, warm objects or ideas, and the word was commonly used in old British society to describe the unruly. In the 1700s, the term “marooning” described figures that governments, especially Britain, would banish to their island colonies with little resources or chances of survival.

Red is a color often associated with ruling parties of communism and socialism around the world, while here in America it is most attributed to the Republican Party. The character often wears red clothing throughout, including the last scene of the film while the entire crowd is wearing blue. His servants and soldiers also wear red hats or shirts.

Red also keeps a bluebird in his office. What appears to be that same blue bird is what captures Deni’s attention before he is shot. This is the personification of Twitter, a social media site donned in blue with a bird as its icon. The bird takes Deni’s attention, both when he is shot running away from the gunman, and in Red’s office while Red is talking to him. The bird serves as a metaphor for social media as a whole and frames it as a deadly distraction for viewers. In my view, it also signifies that every society has a bluebird of its own, and Twitter is the modern addition to those forces.

It also feeds further contextualization into the line “America – I just checked my following list and you mother***ers owe me” from “This is America.” Following Deni’s “America is a concept” beliefs, America is an interchangeable term for society, especially the privileged. Glover signifies through that line in the song that he is influential of and praised by society, but the commodity – in this case, ‘follower,’ but symbolic of any other form – does not reflect that impact.

Deni does not live any differently from the majority of islanders, and outside of his radio show he still has to work a state-organized job; however, Red speaks very positively of him and praises his influence before trying to silence it. With his death, Deni became a figure that all of his society could uplift – they wear blue and dress him in the same color as they carry him high above everyone in the streets. This signifies that he was as much a part of society as them but in death a special figure worthy of honoring.

There are three scenes with masked figures – in the beginning, the children attempting to rob Deni, his kidnapping, and that of his shooting. All of these masks appear to be mostly white and clown-like, worn by servants of Red. The kids wearing the masks claim that they are training to become soldiers, and Red gave it to them as a gift. All of them use the mask to conceal their identity while committing criminal acts but take them off after, and Deni even comments how terrible they are on the children.

Clown symbolism is often used for evil or antagonistic characters like DC’s the Joker for example. White is often associated with purity, but it also has a long cultural significance of being worn by evil characters, like Michael Myers’ mask in the Halloween franchise. Since the film features black and brown characters of color, the use of white to cover themselves serves as an antithesis to their own skin tones and what they are accustomed to as a society.

  • Happiness

Throughout the film, despite the living conditions and issues troubling those on the island, almost everyone in the film is completely positive or happy throughout, even in the end. There is little verbal or visual complaining, displeasure, or unhappiness unless it involves Deni or Kofi.

From the beginning, when Kofi narrates the animated introduction, she describes herself as unsatisfied with the life on Guava Island. When she first hears Deni playing music, Kofi notes to herself that she liked it, but tells him that it should be better, and he decides to constantly improve the song until she likes it. In the opening animation, their characters maintain the same large smile throughout the narration.

Similarly, Deni’s emotional state fluctuates many times throughout the film. He is happy when playing music, but not so much while working. Deni is very lackluster in the reading of “Red Cargo is the best cargo” compared to other parts of his radio broadcast. He mostly enthusiastic when he is with Kofi, which for most of the time during the film he is singing or playing music for her. There are many moments throughout where Deni’s spirit should be dampened, such as when Red breaks his guitar or when the masked kids are robbing him. However, Deni, for the most part, does not dwell on his emotions during or after these moments and always follows through with his intentions.

When Deni and Kofi are together, one of them if not both is in an emotional state of discontent, but they both eventually end up feeling good thanks to one another. When Red sees Kofi in the street before the festival, his parting words to her were “tell Deni I said…to enjoy himself,” knowing that he would be killed there. Kofi even smiles at him before that, even though she is clearly uneasy around him.

Even Deni’s death ends positively, as his funeral is a celebration of his life, leading to a parade across the island. Even through oppression, poverty, or dismay, the people of Guava Island keep themselves drowned in apparent happiness.

Last Word on Guava Island

Guava Island is not necessarily a “tropical thriller” but a beautifully told fable that speaks to the real idea of freedom for the marginalized. It thematically follows in the footsteps of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer, and Jordan Peele’s Us. According to Vanity Fair, the producers directly cite Purple Rain and Fernando Meirelles‘ City of God. With the film centered around her character, Rihanna provides an idiosyncratic lead performance. The setting of the film is the highlight, as you are captivated by Cuba in the background of this story. Glover shows off his range as an actor and musician with ease, and Hiro Murai is sure to be awarded heavily for his direction here. It appears that Murai’s articulation of Guava Island being a “crazy fever dream of a production” fits better than any other early descriptor. The film isn’t necessarily groundbreaking or life-changing, but it will leave you with a smile, and that’s good enough.

 

Main Image Credit:
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