by Lydia Kendall-McDougall
Donald Glover premiered his short film ‘Guava Island’ during his headline set at Coachella on Friday; an unsurprising act from a man whose artistic endeavours revolve around multimedia. Available for free on Amazon for only 18 hours, it runs for just under an hour and features Rihanna standing alongside Glover as his long-term partner. The film, of course, offers us a wonderful blend of forms, as Glover brings all sides of his career together to create what basically stands as a portfolio of all his talents. It includes rewordings of Gambino’s pre-released tracks, namely ‘This is America’ and ‘Feels Like Summer’, and opens with a short, animated sequence in which Rihanna’s voiceover outlines the initial storyline. We are introduced to the island of Guava, previously a place of paradise and love, which has been taken over by a company named Red Cargo, who exploit their workers, dramatically diminishing their quality of life. Glover’s character Deni aims to put on a festival, against the interests of this company, and the plot develops from there.
While we’re used to Glover’s alter ego, Childish Gambino, making social comments about modern day America, the film does offer a more explicit comment on imperialism and the status of America than we’ve seen from him before. He not only gives us a twist on his politically surged ‘This is America’, but he also waltzes into work and makes a speech that describes America as ‘a concept’, continuing to explain that ‘anywhere where in order to make yourself rich, you have to make someone else richer is America’. The seemingly simple plot applies this theory to the island of Guava, as Deni faces the brutal consequences of resisting the imperialist regime, exposing the not-so-idyllic version of an island taken over by a toxic power. All of this is intertwined, however, with playful interactions, beautiful music and a little bit of romance, which doesn’t take away from the political commentary. It therefore deals with multiple issues and themes in a fluent and impressive manner.
While the film does show Glover (or Gambino) at his best, giving us a supercut of all his many capabilities- he acts, sings, and dances-, the short film isn’t so generous to Rihanna, who plays his counterpart Kofi. While her acting is relatively impressive- she can communicate a lot with her body language despite doing and saying very little- her purpose seems directly linked to her boyfriend Deni and, much to the disappointment of anticipating fans, she doesn’t sing a word. We’re given glimpses at her place of authority within their relationship, and she doesn’t seem like someone who would take no for an answer, refusing to accept Deni’s weak attempts at hiding the reasons for his black eye from her. However, he seems to control her emotions and determine her actions, which is extremely frustrating. This may be due to the length of the film and the relatively simple storyline that doesn’t allow for more complex supporting characters, or perhaps it’s just not what the film ‘needed’. That being said, a duet or an extra conversation between her and her female friend that could just pass the Bechdel Test would be an improvement. There’s a lovely (and very short) female-only scene where they dance together at work, but it’s still to his song, and I think that her potential is wasted, which is a shame.
Donald Glover is undoubtedly a talented and intelligent artist, and the film is an interesting watch. It has beautiful scenery, serious commentary, and often shows Glover at his most playful. Having only seen it once, I feel I’m probably missing a lot of the underlying complexity that might be revealed when it’s been out a little longer and it’s possible to watch it again. So, while Glover gave us a multi-dimensional performance, I just wish the film had given Rihanna that same capacity.