childish gambino guava island review
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After making Grammy history with “This Is America” back in February, Donald Glover has reinvented himself yet again with the release of the musical film Guava Island. Together with Rihanna and longtime collaborator Hiro Murai, the man otherwise known as Childish Gambino tells the story of Deni Maroon, a musician who dreams of uniting his home through song. Seemingly idyllic at first, the gorgeous animated sequence that introduces Guava Island soon fades away to reveal a darker connection to Glover’s wider body of work.

Part love story and part tropical thriller, Guava Island shifts back and forth between Deni’s romance with Kofi (Rihanna), his childhood sweetheart, and the music festival he plans to hold in defiance of a dictator called Red (Nonso Anozie). The thug-like enforcer isn’t too happy about the idea of his factory workers attending Deni’s performance in case they end up skipping work the next day. Perhaps subconsciously, he also fears the rebellious mood such music could incite too, and nowhere is this more clear than in Glover’s new take on the song that once brought America to its knees.

America Is a Concept

It all starts when one of the factory workers reveals his plan to leave the seven day work week of Guava Island and find new opportunities in the US. Up to that point, our music-loving protagonist has been pretty easy-going, even laughing it off when children threatened to mug him earlier that day, but suddenly, Deni turns on his colleague and drops a cold, hard truth on his unsuspecting ass here: “America is a concept. Anywhere, where in order to get rich, you have to make someone else richer, is America.”

With his manifesto outlined, Glover channels the Childish Gambino persona to dizzying effect by reframing “This Is America” as a damning condemnation of capitalism. Backed by a new industrialized arrangement, Donald distils the song’s message into something more precise, replacing the propaganda Deni is forced to sing on Red’s radio station with a rally of searing political intent.

In the original video, Gambino criticized our indifference to the many problems that society contends with on a daily basis, imploring us to follow him as he tackled each one with both comic and violent disdain. This time round, we’re no longer just passive observers and the focus is no longer just America. Instead, Gambino invites us to identify directly with this one factory worker and see our own ambivalence reflected in his desire to escape. It’s no coincidence that a pair of Big Brother-style eyes painted above the doorway literally watch on as the performance unfolds.

Don’t Catch You Slippin’ Up

From the outset, Glover deliberately directs this new version of the song entirely towards Deni’s unnamed colleague – and therefore us – to a suffocating degree. As the unnamed man keeps trying to leave, Gambino and his dancers close in from all sides. The harder he tries to avoid the truth of what Deni is saying, the harder it becomes to escape at all.

During this struggle, industrial sounds emulate the gunshots heard in the original version of “This Is America,” reinforcing how capitalism and the inequality it brings can also breed cruelty. Then, as the tension builds to an intolerable degree, each of the dancers suddenly collapse, surrounding the worker entirely – just like we too are always surrounded by exploitation and violence.

It’s not long though until each of the dancers are revived again to start the cycle anew, deliberately echoing the way children in the original video also found joy again just moments after Gambino pulled a gun-like pose. No matter how much violence Americans face each day, they’re still quick to shift their attention back onto superficial trends almost immediately after yet another shooting hits the news.

Desperate to escape now, Deni’s colleague implores the other workers for help, but no one seems willing or able to make a difference. In one particularly disconcerting moment, he tries calling someone on the phone for assistance, but the line is dead. However, instead of a cut dial tone, we hear Glover’s character make strangled, guttural noises for an uncomfortable length of time. It’s like Deni is trying to continue performing, but he’s stuck on pause and can’t carry on until the worker gives him his undivided attention.

This Is Guava

It seems then that Glover has become frustrated by our once promising response to “This Is America.” Sure, the song went on to win plenty of acclaim in the interim, but nothing seems to have really changed on a wider scale. Violence and inequality continue to be met with indifference by large sections of society, so clearly, the message didn’t get through the first time round – and it’s safe to say that Glover noticed.

It’s no coincidence that Glover filmed this new version of the song in Cuba of all places and it’s no coincidence that he reframes the song as an attack on capitalism either. The class differences symbolized here through explicit color-coding might be more complex in the real world, but the message Donald’s trying to convey is not. Whether we’re aligned with the lower-class blue workers, the capitalistic red tribe, or something else entirely, class oppression and the inevitable conflict it brings are universal problems we must all face together.

By exploring these concerns in a fictional location, Glover hopes to remind us that the issues he first brought to our attention last year aren’t exclusively American. If America is a concept, then Guava is too, but like any concept, this can be changed. Just like Deni, Glover also hopes to incite rebellion through music, forcing us to reconsider our position in society.

However, the impact of this message depends on what you think of the way it’s been delivered. Did Glover release the film via Amazon (of all places) as a meta-commentary on capitalism, proving that these corrupt systems can be manipulated to our own individualistic means? Or was this simply a clunky and hypocritical misstep that undermines the song’s message entirely? Either way, it’s hard to deny that “This Is America” still holds the power to bring us to our knees, reminding us yet again that America is anything but an idyllic island paradise and only we can do something about it.

Words by David Opie