While you were sleeping, Donald Glover’s been busy. Busier than usual for him. On Friday night, Donald Glover headlined Coachella and, as if that weren’t enough of a taxing job on its own (Beychella is a tough act for anyone to follow), he also went and dropped a whole 55-minute film at the same time. A double whammy! Guava Island is streaming now on Amazon Prime (for free, for a limited time), and will re-air again for one time only on Coachella’s YouTube stream later today. It’s a small window to catch it, so if you miss it, we’re here to get you up to speed. The first step to understanding what Guava Island even is, though, is accepting that it’s a Donald Glover/Childish Gambino film in name only. A formality, really. For all other intents and purposes, this is his co-star Rihanna’s film, and this is our truth. Does she have all the screen time afforded to Glover? Not quite — our eyes wouldn’t be able to handle it, obviously. Still! She’s all you need to see here. But for the sake of covering all our bases, let’s get into all the details besides Rihanna.
Who’s in it?
The film stars Donald Glover as Deni Maroon, who we quickly learn is pretty much the star musician on the island. He works part-time at the local state-run radio station singing a mix of jingles supporting the island’s dictator along with other, much-better, original songs. He also works down at the docks, but not by choice, and is somehow lucky enough to be in a longterm relationship with Rihanna. (We’re told he was the boy next door and wooed her with a song when they were kids. Sure!) Deni’s mission in life, he says, is to bring a sense of freedom to the island through his music.
As noted, Rihanna plays Kofi Novia, Deni’s girlfriend, who immediately knocked him down a peg the first time she ever heard one of his songs, telling him to practice more and that he’d never be able to write a song as beautiful as her. (Now that’s more like it.) Secretly she loved him and his music, of course, and so now they’re boo’d up. Kofi works in what is essentially a sweatshop, sewing all day, but has dreams of getting off the island and starting a new life abroad, hopefully with Deni if he’ll follow her. Though she’s presented as a supporting character to Deni, it quickly becomes clear that she’s the film’s anchor.
Rihanna’s joined in the factory by Black Panther’s Letitia Wright, who plays Kofi’s best friend Yara. While Kofi’s more of a rule follower at work, Yara’s a free spirit (a Shuri 2.0) who blasts the radio when the guards aren’t looking, so she can turn up to Deni’s music and get Kofi to loosen up.
The whole island is more or less governed by the Red family, which, we learn via an animated story of Guava’s history in the film’s opening, has taken control of the island’s chief export, blue silk, and forced everyone on the island to work for them as a means to ensure that all the island’s capital stays in only their pockets. Game of Thrones’ Nonso Anozie plays Red Cargo, the apparent Red heir presently in charge of keeping the island and its people in check through whatever violent means necessary.
How’d it get made?
The whole project reportedly came together quickly at some point last year when Glover and Rihanna somehow managed to find an opening in their schedules and flew to Cuba to shoot the film. It’s directed by Hiro Murai, Glover’s longtime collaborator on all his visual work. (Murai directed the “This Is America” video and is the showrunner on Glover’s FX series Atlanta.) Glover’s brother, Stephen, wrote the script which is reportedly loosely inspired by a mix of Prince’s Purple Rain, 2003’s City of God, 1991’s Touki Bouki (which Beyoncé and Jay-Z have also drawn inspiration from for their recent tour), and 1959’s Black Orpheus. Styling for the film was inspired by the African diaspora, according to executive-producer Ibra Ake, who said the intention was to create a fictional island that blended a wide variety of cultures that comprise the diaspora (for example, people on the island slip into Spanish, and Rihanna can be seen wearing both a Nigerian gele and a locally-sourced dress from Cuba at different points in the film; Glover, meanwhile, goes in and out of a nondescript Caribbean accent.)
What’s the story?
Guava Island’s plot is mostly thin: It follows a crucial day in Deni’s life, as he plans to put on a music festival which will culminate in his headlining performance. His aim is to give people the weekend off, when they shouldn’t be working anyway, and he hopes that after attending the festival on Saturday night, everyone will call out the following day. Though he doesn’t explicitly frame it as such, it’s a protest against the Red family and their greed that’s robbed Guava’s people of a better life. Red Cargo, of course, sees the festival for what it is and threatens to put a stop to it by kidnapping Deni, smashing his guitar, and bloodying him up.
Deni, though, won’t budge — not even against the better judgement of Kofi, who realizes the dire consequences the festival could hold, and whom Deni also keeps in the dark about Red’s threats; she learns of it instead through a coworker and puts on the festival in defiance of Red. What Deni doesn’t know through all his crusading, though, is that Kofi is pregnant. (She fears it’ll hold him back and doesn’t tell him: “Artists like their freedom,” she says to Yara.) It’s here that the film takes a tragic turn: a gunman (clearly hired by Red) fires at Deni in the middle of his concert. Deni gets away at first, but becomes distracted by one of the island’s many beauties he’s fighting to preserve — a gorgeous blue bird — and is ultimately shot to death.
Red assumes that snuffing out Deni will ensure his factories stay open for business the next day, but he obviously assumes wrong. Instead, the whole island comes together for a celebratory funeral procession for Deni, and to defy Red even further, everyone dresses in elaborate funeral attire made from Red’s precious blue silk. (The color wars here are all too on the nose.) A dumbfounded Red spots Kofi — draped in a truly stunning beaded veil, with a matching blue smokey eye and ornate gele — in the crowd. She smirks at the sight of him, “We got our day.” As the screen fades to black, we hear Kofi’s voice revising Guava’s history in a new bedtime story to her and Deni’s child: “I get to tell you a story about how dreams come true.”
Is This a Visual Album?
Not in the way Beyoncé has trained us to think of them, no. Guava Island does incorporate old Childish Gambino songs – “This Is America,” “Summertime Magic,” “Saturday,” “Feels Like Summer” – and an unreleased song called “Die With You” that could totally be a hit, but the songs are mostly interstitial. It’s not a music film or a visual album – Guava Island is just a film about a musician, and so the music comes and goes. There is, however, an alternate version of the “This Is America” video (the most this thing feels like a visual album), and a moment where Rihanna and Glover vibe to “Summertime Magic,” when Deni uses the song to get back in Kofi’s good graces after lying to her. (It’s the one he thinks comes closest to matching her beauty.)
Can I get more Rihanna, please?