Deni Maroon (Donald Glover) is a local musician on Guava Island, as told in a voice over upon the film’s animated opening credit sequence from Deni’s girlfriend, Kofi Novia (Rihanna), who is pregnant with their future child. Her narrative suggests that on the basis of love and hate, peace and war, the 7 gods of the 7 universes created a small island in the center of planet earth called Guava. She explains the backstory of this island, as it was told to her in the form of bedtime stories, from her mother as a child. Deni is a strongminded musician determined to throw a festival for all of the island’s citizens to enjoy, in this tropical thriller directed by Hiro Murai; the Japanese born American filmmaker who’s notable works include music videos for Childish Gambino – the stage name Donald Glover performs music under.
Guava Island is one long music video interweaved with a meaningful story that runs 55 minutes in length. The tone is upbeat, switching between a fictional narrative and up-tempo music numbers in conjunction with dance sequences. The narrative takes place in one day, chronicling Deni’s life events prior to the night of his highly anticipated music festival. The conflict therein lies when the Island ruler, Red Cargo (Nonso Anozie) threatens Deni’s promotion of the event, refraining him from performing. The island ruler’s agenda is to maintain order through his notoriously violent methods, and since he’s aware of Deni’s agenda of liberation, the thrills of danger begin to sink in as this fast-paced story moves forward, getting closer to the night of the festival.
Guava Island starts off by setting the level of acceptance and influence Deni has within the island community. Dozens of citizens say hello to him as he rushes to his recording studio until he’s suddenly brought to a halt and ambushed by a group of kids who hold him up like pirates with fake weapons in an attempted robbery. Deni offers them front row seats to his festival, in a scene that serves as a metaphor for the struggles of young children who live their days in starvation and gear toward their last resort of crime in order to survive. The island is in need of change, and Deni is quickly gaining the approval of the masses, since the red heir of the land has created such an imbalance, eating lavish meals like a king while the women and children of his island are suffering miserably.
Guava Island is a fictional narrative shot and framed like archived footage with a 4:3 aspect ratio on the ARRI Alexa LF camera – which is a 4.5K ultra high-definition camera. The magician cinematographer, Christian Sprenger, makes the film look like it was legitimately shot on old-fashioned super 16mm film that was designed to blow up to a 35mm film projection. The fact that this was shot digitally is another true testament of how you can make a digital movie look like it was shot on film. It can be argued that the filmstock emulation on Guava Island looks better than it would have, had it been shot entirely on a super 16mm film camera.
Surprisingly, this film is highly entertaining because of its swift acceleration, led by Deni who is almost always on the move with practically every scene accompanied by cheerful and optimistic music. Guava Island life is hot as the citizens work hard in sewing factories and construction sites, showered by their own sweat with a sense of denigration from the island heir providing them minimal hope for an optimistic future. Deni wears his signature unbuttoned short sleeved collar with no under shirt running around the island with his acoustic guitar, while his lady Kofi roams about in euphoria, as she’s hard at work in a sewing factory on an island in desperate need of liberation and progressive change. Rihanna graces the screen with her presence, performing the role of Kofi with authenticity, considering her real-life upbringing in Barbados – the eastern Caribbean island. The island of Guava serves as a metaphor for any nation that has an imbalance of power and doesn’t stand up for its citizens. This film jams, beats, bumps, chases, rocks, dances, sings, marches, bangs and fires its way to a thrilling climax and a meaningful ending that conveys the power a populous can have if they band together toward common causes. This is a political film as much as it is a musical.
Guava Island is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.