“Why does the caged bird sing?”
After being shrouded in secrecy, the new hour-long film Guava Island starring Donald Glover (Childish Gambino) and Rihanna follows an eccentric musician Deni Maroon (Glover) who wants to throw a music festival for the people of Guava island. His girlfriend Kofi Novia (Rihanna) is enamored with his free spirit, but becomes worried that his goal to bring joy to the island will pit him against Red Cargo (Nonso Anozie), a powerful bossman who controls the island’s economy.
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The film opens with Kofi dreaming. She narrates an animated story her mother would tell her when she was a girl; a cosmic tale about how the seven gods created Guava island and unleashed two truths: love and war. When she wakes up, Deni and Kofi head out for the day–him to first sing a jingle for Red Cargo at the radio station, but both to report to their respective posts at Cargo’s factories and docks. Deni is kidnapped at work and taken to Red’s estate, where the Red makes a threatening suggestion to Deni to cancel the festival. Though he considers the risk, Deni decides sing anyway and announces on the radio that the festival will be held as planned.
An uneasy Kofi goes to the concert, and spots a masked gunman wading through the jubilant crowd. Her screams warn Deni in time to avoid the assassin’s fire, but though he runs away, the gunman eventually finds him and kills him. The people use this tragedy, galvanizing to celebrate Deni’s life and their own.
Aside from its gorgeous cinematography (an ode to the 2002 Brazilian film “City of God”) and scenery (the film was shot in Havana, Cuba), Guava Island is filled with symbolic imagery.
In the background buildings, we see Red Cargo signs everywhere, pictures of eyes and others signs reading “Red sees you” or “Gossip killed the mosquito.” These images are metaphors for Red’s domination but also premonitions for Deni’s demise. Deni’s last name “Maroon” is also symbolic, maroons being the term for rebels in the Caribbean and South America who fought against slavery.
Guava Island was full of dichotomies: red and blue, love and war, joy and despair, birth and death, community and capitalism, freedom and confinement.
In scenes where we see Red Cargo’s office, you see blue birds trapped in cages– the birds mirroring the people of Guava Island and the daily trap of rote manual labor in Cargo’s factories. Before Deni met his demise, he sees an uncaged blue bird–showing the freedom he sought for himself and his people. The next day Red Cargo checks his factories and is alarmed to see no one is at work. When he drives into the city and gets swept into Deni’s funeral procession, the visual juxtaposition here is brilliant: a sea of blue (love) washing over a dot of red (war).
The film also showcased the paradox of music: its power to both lull and liberate. While in the service of Red Cargo, his songs, though beautiful, aided in keeping workers complacent; a satiating soundtrack to their daily oppression. But in the end, his music and death sparked joyful rebellion, even if only for a day. At times Deni serenades with songs like “Summertime Magic” or “Feels Like Summer,” but he also breaks out into absurdist performances like “This is America.” The first song we hear in the film is “Die With You” and the dichotomies come full circle during the concert performance of “Saturday”– a clash between euphoria and terror.
Guava Island is a beautiful combination of fable, comedy and tragedy. Make sure you check it on Amazon Prime.