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‘Guava Island’ Explained: Understanding Donald Glover and Rihanna’s Surprise Film

Donald Glover continues to grow and impress as an artist, adding the short film “Guava Island” to his already impressive resume of Grammy-winning music as Childish Gambino and his Emmy-winning show “Atlanta.”

The 55-minute movie seemingly came out of nowhere. In early April, Spotify began running ads for “Guava Island” and created a hidden playlist inspired by the film. Amazon Prime Video released a short teaser last week showing Glover and Rihanna dancing in radiant beach outfits to drum beats. Then, Glover exclusively showed the film to Coachella-goers on Saturday as a part of his headlining set. For 18 hours, anyone could watch the movie for free on Amazon Prime Video, but now only subscribers can view it.

Somewhere between an extended TV episode and a feature-length film, “Guava Island” tackles a lot of themes in its tight runtime. With FX’s “Atlanta” on hiatus, the movie could be the key to Glover and his team picking up another Emmy or two this year.

From “Atlanta” to “Guava Island”

Glover enlisted his frequent collaborator Hiro Murai to direct the film. Murai has helmed several episodes of “Atlanta,” HBO’s “Barry” and the Grammy-winning music video for Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” Stephen Glover, a writer on “Atlanta” and Donald’s younger brother, penned the screenplay for “Guava Island.”

The film’s production was mostly hush-hush. Word got out that Glover and Rihanna were filming a project in Cuba last summer, but details were scare beyond that. “Black Panther” breakout actress Letitia Wright and Nonso Anozie, who “Game of Thrones” fans will recognize as Xaro Xhoan Daxos from Qarth (quite a mouthful), were also attached to the production. Several months later, the secrecy finally broke and fans got their look at Glover’s latest artistic achievement.

Arriving at the island

The colorful film serves as a parable for artistry and capitalism, but also as a visual album for Childish Gambino’s recent jams, like “This Is America,” “Feels Like Summer” and “Summertime Magic.” A charming animated intro narrated by Rihanna explains the origins of Guava Island. Ancient gods created a magical island away from mankind’s sins and war; however, violence eventually takes over and industrializes the paradise.

Rihanna plays Kofi Novia, a seamstress and the inspiration for her boyfriend Deni Maroon’s (Glover) music. Deni’s beautiful tunes unite the island’s working class, who toil away for the dictator Red Cargo (Anozie), but he has dreams to run away with Kofi for a freer life. Red hears of Deni’s plans for a revolution and has him killed, leading to a factory walk-out and public funeral for the musical martyr.

In a way similar to Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” visual album, “Guava Island” combines its art with socio-political symbolism, especially through color. Red’s capitalistic, colonizing forces wear their leader’s colors, and the working class characters wear blue clothing made from the island’s magical silkworms. The red and blue symbolism surely has political implications. Even Maroon, Deni’s last name, refers to his status as an employee of Red, who allows him to operate a radio station playing music to quell his workers. While the rest of the characters are routinely color-coded, Deni and Kofi wear a mixture of reds, blues and yellows, caught between the social classes and power struggle.

A true artist till the end, Deni disobeys Red’s threats to stop playing music and holds a festival for the island’s workers. Even when faced with death, he believes his art will prevail, and his music and death finally unite the lower class against the ruler.

Emmy hopes

“Guava Island” is too short to be considered for any TV movie Emmy awards, but Amazon will surely push it for outstanding variety special (pre-recorded). Last year, Netflix’s stand-up special “Dave Chappelle: Equanimity” took home the award, but James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke Primetime Specials” dominated the previous two years. Glover’s film will face fierce competition this year as “Homecoming,” the Netflix documentary on Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella performance, will compete in the same category.

Amazon will reportedly submit “Guava Island” for writing, directing and other below-the-line awards in the variety special category. If the songs were created specifically for the film, they could also compete for outstanding original music and lyrics.

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