Donald Glover may not have written or directed Guava Island, but his fingerprints are all over the film. It’s a self-portrait painted with the aid of frequent collaborators and close friends (Guava Island is directed by Hiro Murai and written by Glover’s younger brother Stephen), an act of self-mythologization casting Glover as the hero of a fable, enacting change through his music.
At just under an hour (and streaming now on Amazon), Guava Island is thin enough that that reflexiveness is hard not to pick up on. The film opens with a bedtime story as told by Kofi (Rihanna), explaining that the island of the title was created by the gods and eventually corrupted by people who would seek to profit off of the beautiful blue thread spun by the native worms. Deni (Glover), her longtime sweetheart, plans to stage a music festival in order to offer the people a reprieve, and allow them the time to actually enjoy the island they’re living on.
Deni’s conversations with the other denizens of the island, from Red Cargo (Nonso Anozie) to the factory workers under Red’s employ, often melt into music. “This Is America” kicks into gear as Deni dismisses the idea of the American Dream and a better life waiting off the island, and he woos Kofi to “Summertime Magic.” That they’re not original to the film — both songs are plucked from Glover’s output as Childish Gambino — adds to the feeling that Guava Island is ultimately a way of burnishing Glover’s image.
Glover is magnetic and spirited as a performer to a degree that makes it easy to buy into Guava Island’s legend-building — so long as music is playing. Of course people would gravitate to Deni; his performances have the same spellbinding effect as each new Childish Gambino video, mostly because that’s exactly what they are.
Guava Island is one long music video, falling halfway between a traditional movie musical and “visual albums” like Lemonade, and thereby failing to reach the full potential of either. It’s a charming work so long as you don’t think too hard about it — it’s visually and musically lush, and packed with enough big ideas as to the intersection of art, capitalism, and politics to pass for incisive art. That impression, however, crumbles upon closer inspection.
The driving conflict of the story is provided by Red, who tells Deni to cancel the festival so that his employees don’t decide to call out the following day in order to recover. What comes next is fairly predictable, particularly given the fact that Guava Island is a musical, and sets Glover up as a sort of patron saint to the arts and creative freedom.
It’s this semi-canonization that Guava Island pivots to rather than digging any further into the themes set up earlier in the film. America is a concept, not a country, Deni claims, and then leaves the legwork to the imagery we already associate with “This Is America.” Glover and his fellow artists clearly have big ideas, but they’re brushed past instead of engaged with, adding to the overall sense of low stakes.
There’s an irony, too, to the film’s Instagram-ready sense of aesthetics. The 4x3 aspect ratio and heavy grain are nothing if not dreamy; it’s influencer-chic despite the fact that Guava Island’s would-be ethos defies that kind of curation and wish fulfillment.
It’s easy to forget about Guava Island’s lack of reflection while watching it — again, it’s beautiful in every aspect — but harder to ignore once the credits roll. The film is special as a tale about black artists featuring a cast of black artists, but nobody really has much to do besides Glover. Rihanna, despite being Rihanna, has a few good moments as one of the only island inhabitants unimpressed (albeit lovingly so) with Deni’s shenanigans, but she’s otherwise largely sidelined, and never once gets to sing. That the film’s other characters are also blips on the radar by comparison just emphasizes the way Guava Island turns Glover into a symbol.
It’s part of an ongoing trend of artists dictating their own public perception. From Beyoncé’s carefully curation of her image (which is about to experience another shift with Netflix’s upcoming Homecoming) to the way Chance the Rapper has gone about both battling and enabling media (pressuring MTV to delete a negative review, and then saving the Chicago news site Chicagoist), artists are taking the ability to shape themselves to the next level. Glover has spoken about the pressure he feels as an artist — Guava Island is his way of illustrating that. The problem is that it’s a bid that simply is; it doesn’t make much of an effect on the way Glover is already perceived as an artist, nor say anything that his music videos haven’t already. It’s a proclamation made without any verve or conviction.