Mature Gambino: Capitalism in Guava Island

Andrea Loftus reviews Donald Glover, A.K.A. Childish Gambino, and his latest artistic project: ‘Guava Island’. Starring Rihanna and Glover himself, the film deals with a range of gripping and vitally relevant issues, such as the relentless impact of capitalism and the cruel trap of ‘The American Dream’.

We already knew Donald Glover was a man of many talents, from his addictive music released under the alias Childish Gambino to his Golden Globe winning acting skills in FX television show Atlanta. So what to do next when you’re your own artistic competition? Well I suppose the only option is to join forces with director Hiro Murai and the powerhouse that is Rihanna to create Guava Island, a tale of morality and the consequence of passion VS profit. 

The project was kept surprisingly hush-hush until its release, but this has not had a negative impact on its reception with audiences. Interpolating a handful of Gambino’s latest releases, the familiar essence of the film was bound to be well received. Including the Grammy award winning ‘This Is America’, the powerful dance scene from its video is reworked and placed in a dock warehouse. The scene apparently took two days to film, a duration that isn’t surprising due to the interwoven intricacies of dance and lyricism. 

The most harrowing comparison between the two comes from the mysterious ending of Glover’s original video and the fate of his character, Deni Maroon. At the end of the first video, Gambino is shown, amongst a progressively darkening background, running for his life from a group of faceless individuals. Similarly, as Guava Island ends, Deni is also depicted running for his life from a hitman tasked with punishing him for challenging hierarchical systems of power. Some have noted, however, that the use of Glover’s own music in this film has increased its popularity and consequently bumped up his bank statement since the film’s release, an ironic consequence of self promotion.

Music is at the core of this film, while the romantic narrative between Rihanna (Kofi Novia) and Deni offers a fairytale-esque element to the production. Rihanna´s dulce de leche sweet voice recalls how Deni promised to “write a song as beautiful as her.” If we’re talking about the downfalls of this film, Rihanna’s character of Kofi is heavily under emphasised, shown principally as the worried, yet enchanted, love interest who stares admiringly at the male lead. More could definitely be done to utilise Rihanna’s ‘triple-threat’ of talent. 

Gambino’s Deni, on the other hand, has a much wider range. As well as his love driven incentive, Deni’s intentions are also politically charged as he wishes to unite the docile, despondent islanders with a “song that would remind us of the magic Guava had” as “we live in paradise but none of us really have the time or the means to live here.” The festival performance of ‘Saturday’ is enjoyable but not necessarily worth all that he put on the line. 

The narrative focuses on Deni’s light hearted, repeatedly tardy approach to his two jobs and objective to end the Saturday with a free local festival. The island is entirely ran by ‘Red Congo’, a mafia-esque family whose success orientates around the manufacturing of a special blue material. The colourful symbolism represents America to a degree, but the coastal setting indicates that the ‘Blue’ workers are the heart of this island and that the harsh, angry, greedy ‘Red’ embodies the capitalist dictatorship that we all subconsciously live under in the Western world. The visual tie is made more explicit as a co-worker dreams of going to America. Deni´s retort is, in short, the statement the artistic film is intending to make: America is a concept in itself. “Anywhere where in order to get rich you have to make someone else richer is America.”

Though set on the fictitious ‘Guava Island’, the project was actually filmed in Cuba with the aim to cast Afro-Cuban locals as a means of showcasing the abundance of talent already present. As such, the film employs an actively positive method of rejecting the lack of representation for minority ethnic actors available in Hollywood. The source material was written by Glover himself, but the screenplay was reworked and produced by Ibra Ake, Jamal Olori and his brother Stephen Glover. The three stated in an interview for INSIDER that they sourced “great local talent” and saw the setting as an opportunity to “amplify the voices of the local community.” The film articulates this sentiment beautifully, with the appearance of traditional Cuban instruments during the finale (a carnival funeral scene) as well as steel pans in a ´Summertime Magic´ lullaby during the beach scene. Ultimately, the film is a triumphant commentary on the innate capitalism present within American culture and encapsulates the transition of Glover’s music from the states to the sands.

After debuting the film at the infamous Coachella music festival on Thursday (11/04/19), Glover announced that the film would be available to stream on Amazon Prime from the following Saturday. The setting of the debut was somewhat ironic, as the festival is renowned for being more of an instagram background or dusty catwalk than an opportunity to relish the variety of acts who play over the two weekends.

However, overall, it seems that Glover’s intentions were achieved. The film explicitly deconstructs the glorification of the ´American Dream´. The aspiration to be successful, famous and rich is criticised by Glover as unreachable and elusive. The harsh reality is instead revealed as the promise of wealth being used by those in positions of economic power to control and exploit the hardworking public. Deni’s desire to give the people “their day” was bittersweet but nonetheless enacted. His funeral became the festival, the celebration of music, culture, life and a day without work. 

The irony of Deni´s funeral being the festival he envisioned is paradoxically tragic and triumphant. This day of traditional music and playful kaleidoscope of rainbow colours in the streets is one of elation, yet it is tinged with injustice. The body of the anarchic artist is carried through the streets in a melancholy appreciation of the dreamer who dared to stand up to the immorality of capitalism.