Guava Island (Murai, 2019)

Last year Janelle Monáe released a conceptual “emotion picture” to act as a thematic and visual supplement to her third studio album Dirty Computer. Now Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino) is taking a similar approach with Guava Island, an hour-long film directed by frequent collaborator Hiro Murai that gives us a cogent tour of his musical career thus far, from the stringent protest song “This Is America” to the steelpan sexiness of “Summertime Magic” (a song which he memorably performs here in front of Rihanna). Glover has always been an electric performer with a canny awareness of how he can bend his physicality to tell the story of his lyrics, and Guava Island is like a Childish Gambino concert in overdrive in this respect. He grooves through song after song with lithe lyricism, achieving a bewildering kind of beauty that acts as counterpoint to his allegory of capitalist exploitation. It’s actually rather ambitious of him to tell a story like this in such a small amount of time. His choice of ending demands better buildup and context to reach the appropriate cathartic levels, and I fear there isn’t enough here for it to have the most impact. He is more suited to giving his story a strong visual edge, which he does with some truly mouth-watering 35mm cinematography that helps give the blue gradients (which are important thematically) depth and richness. I think it should be mandatory that all films set on tropical coasts be filmed in 35mm.

Intentional or not, this feels indebted to a film like Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus, which was itself a unique mixture of stunning colours, sensual music, and unforeseen tragedy. The difference is that Camus made a mythological allegory, while Glover’s is economic and speaks more to our current climate. Camus’ film also broke more ground in terms of black representation in cinema. Guava Island has less of a reason to exist, since to my knowledge Glover is not slated to release another Childish Gambino album in the near future (and I don’t remember any of the songs featured here as being entirely new). It has a mark of gratuity to it that feels somewhat unearned. But nor is it disposable, for the craft is still gorgeously rendered. It makes you want to pour a sangria or mimosa and think of sunny beaches and clear blue waters. Whether I’ll be compelled to crank up the Childish Gambino on Spotify is another matter entirely.