The Grammy-winning, enigmatic rapper Childish Gambino released his highly anticipated film Guava Island late Friday night right in the middle of his characteristically unconventional Coachella set.
Though he made no mention of the film while smoking weed with his audience, Guava Island is inextricably linked to the California music festival. It held its world premiere there before premiering on Amazon Prime where it’s available for free until 9 p.m. EST. More importantly, Guava Island is a product of the alter-ego Childish Gambino—not just a film starring the talented, Emmy-winning actor Donald Glover.
The film is directed by Hiro Murai, Glover’s longtime collaborator behind the music video for “This Is America” as well as several episodes of Glover’s hit show Atlanta. It makes sense then that Guava Island, at just 55 minutes, is a hybrid film and visual album.
The film follows Deni (Glover), a local radio DJ organizing a music festival in hopes of uniting the oppressed citizens of the fictional Guava island who live in paradise but never get to rest. All the while, he’s trying to be a good boyfriend to his childhood crush turned longtime partner Kofi (Rihanna). Black Panther’s Letitia Wright appears briefly as Kofi’s factory co-worker, while Game of Thrones’ Nonso Anozie brings his knack for villainy as a shady factory boss.
After a photo leaked of Rihanna and Glover together last summer in Havana, Cuba, where the film was shot, expectations soared among fans that Guava Island wouldn’t just be a joyous collaboration but the opening salvo for the two beloved musicians’ long-awaited albums. It’s with a heavy heart when I say Rihanna does not even hum a tune in the film—and unfortunately, that might be its biggest takeaway.
Glover does sing—and repeatedly so—throughout the short film. Guava Island disperses a series of Gambino’s vibey-yet-lesser-known tracks like “Feels like Summertime,” “Die With You” and the still unreleased “Human Sacrifice” through the short, short film. It’s a nice reminder of just how versatile his catalog is. The only person who has effortlessly moved through reggae, rap and pop is, well, his co-star Rihanna. R.I.P once more to what could have been a stellar duet.
While he leaves out his biggest hits like “3005” and “Redbone,” Glover makes up for it with an extended performance of his acclaimed 2018 single “This Is America.” The Guava Island version is closely tied to the original music video, serving more as an explainer than a remake. Both the music video and the film sequence take place in desolate warehouses and utilize similar choreography. But this time around, Gambino isn’t coy. “America is a concept,” he states before the in-scene machinery kicks off his performance. “Anywhere where in order to get rich you have to make someone else richer is America.” Cue the jerky dance moves. The scene is a satisfying answer to the many questions concerning what “This Is America” stood for: a warning call against modern-day imperialism.
However, as the only non-diegetic scene, “This is America” doesn’t flow with the rest of the movie. Instead, it reminds you of how great Gambino is when the focus should be on Deni’s fraught journey. Is Guava Island little more than just extended promo for Childish Gambino, similar to Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer visual album?
Probably not, but much of the film is left unresolved. Once again, why doesn’t Rihanna sing? While she and Glover are both endlessly charming in the film, Guava Island underserves the Barbadian icon. Murai gloriously frames her with truly stunning profiles honoring her Caribbean heritage and a reminder of just how youthful she is (Rihanna turned 31 in February). However, more Rihanna is always best, and her musical chops are sorely missed here.
It’s just one of many questions left on the table as the film quickly wraps up. Is there a Guava Island soundtrack on the horizon? What about the rumors Glover only has one album left as Childish Gambino before he retires from music? And if so, when’s it coming out?
While Guava Island doesn’t provide many answers about its two beloved leads, Gambino himself inadvertently outlined how he feels about the film at the beginning of his Coachella set. He offered two rules. First, feel each other: “I’m trying to give you an experience. You feel me? Do you love?” Second, put your phone down: “This is not a concert...This is my church, I feel at home here. So if shit needs to bounce, I need you to motherfucking bounce.” Guava Island’s story of a happy-go-lucky small-town musician is Childish Gambino at his core. And, maybe, that might just be enough.