Songs soar in Guava Island, the new 55-minute-long collaboration between Donald Glover and Atlanta director Hiro Murai. Lets go ahead and call it a movie, even a musical—though in truth, the best things about Guava Island arent its handsomely produced, cinematic style, its lush Cuban locales, or its plot, which has the shape and feel of a modern parable. The best things about Guava Island are the excuses it gives Glover to perform. Thats another way of saying that while the movie isnt very good, Glover is. The songs, though not new, are pretty swell, too: a sweet, sun-kissed reminder that you ought to be outside catching vitamin D, rather than inside streaming some movie.
But here we are. The film—which began streaming on Amazon Prime this weekend, timed to Glovers performance at Coachella—opens by explaining the titular, mythic island, created by the gods as a place beyond the world-paralyzing forces of love and hate. The island is known for its clay worm, which in turn is known for the beauty of its silk. The islanders, the story goes, fell in love with that silk—waking the dark force of capitalism. Soon came the powerful Red family, and with them leader Red Cargo (Nonso Anozie), who runs factories on the island with a comfortably brutal hand.
Thats the bedtime story that Kofi, played by Rihanna, grew up hearing every night, which is why she wants to get away from the island. But of course, theres also a guy. Her partner, Deni (Glover), a musician, doesnt want to leave Guava Island. He wants to make it better, make it beautiful. Hes planning an all-night music festival thatll set people free, spiritually speaking. That is, unless Red Cargo has his say.
If youre prone to wondering how someone becomes a musical celebrity on an island where the powers that be are otherwise deeply antagonistic to expression—dont. The movies got some big ideas; Deni puts it boldly when he says, “America is a concept. Anywhere where in order to get rich, you have to make someone else richer, is America.” That moment quickly escalates into an all-out song and dance number, an a cappella rehash of Glovers “This Is America,” with some staging and wild wriggling reproduced from Glover and Murai's viral 2018 music video.
In other words: this is why were really here. Guava Island has gotten credit for its heavy themes—but it should be credited, instead, with offering a convincing appearance of themes, and with its appearances. Replete with marquee names as Guava Island is, its no wonder the film looks and sounds pretty good—like a members-only tier of Instagram accessible only to influencers willing to shell out a monthly subscription fee. But dramatically and ideologically, Guava Island is about as good as an average film students thesis movie.
Though the film takes pains to remind us that theres more at stake in the freedom of an island like this than the places resort-ready beauty would suggest—a worthy idea—the movie doesn't exactly reject the instinct to revel in tropical splendor. As it stands, you have to wonder what Murai and his cast might have done with a better script. Theres relatively little dialogue, yet Guava Island still manages to drag, as if the filmmakers assumed its aesthetics would be enough. Jokes don't land; symbols prove plodding rather than suggestive; emotional contours go unexplored.
And Rihanna gets painfully little to do, as does Letitia Wright—who in Black Panther rose to international renown by stealing scenes right from under the feet of the movies leads. Ultimately, the issue may be the movie cant decide what it wants to be—whether it wants to engage with the serious, heady tensions that arise between freedom and capital, art and commerce, colonialism and what comes after, or whether it merely wants to be a #mood.
Glover is, it should be said, pretty enjoyable as a goofy boyfriend type, even as his stank face shtick eventually wears a little thin. Few recent pop culture phenomena are as satisfying as Rihanna being visibly unimpressed with a man who's trying to win her attention, and its worth commending Glover for willingly taking up the receiving end more than once in this movie. Hes placed himself at the center of this story as a glorified symbol of the power of art against capital; with a more textured sense of ideas, with a level of political complexity befitting the films subject, maybe that statement would ring truer.