REVIEW: ‘Guava Island’ Is a Pretty Postcard That Distances Itself From Cuba’s Political Baggage

Rihanna and Donald Glover in 'Guava Island' / Film still via Amazon Prime.

Guava Island, the movie-meets-visual album from Childish Gambino a.k.a. Donald Glover, dropped on Amazon Prime after the artist’s Coachella set Sunday night. It’s a playful riff on movies like Black Orpheus, the French-Brazilian film about a popular musician and the woman he loves, who are struck by tragedy at the height of Carnaval. Guava Island follows Glover as the beloved troubadour, Deni; Rihanna as his song-free love interest, Kofi; and Letitia Wright as Kofi’s friend and co-worker. Although the reviews have been mixed, some praising Hiro Murai’s direction while others criticizing the short feature’s lackluster plot, it’s the latest work to feature Cuba prominently – but only in the background. 

The first news fans heard about Guava Island was that Glover and Rihanna had snuck into Cuba to film a secret project. Already the media narrative was building on the old relics of this “forbidden” Caribbean island. Once a vacation destination for the rich and infamous, Cuba became our mysterious neighbor to the south, kept at a distance by a six-decades-old embargo that’s still very much in place. President Obama may have opened some doors to Cuba, which set the stage for Rihanna’s first trip to Cuba for a Vogue cover shoot a few years back, but people’s curiosity remains. The comment I hear most about Cuba is how badly they want to see it before it changes. The myth about an island that never ages, a place where you can step back in time is alive and well and Guava Island does nothing to dispel it.

Rihanna and Donald Glover Rihanna and Donald Glover in ‘Guava Island.’ Courtesy of Amazon.
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The movie was filmed in Cuba, but it is not about it. There’s no sign of the Cuban flag or Communist Party ads or slogans in the fictional town. In interviews about the style, fashion, and casting of Guava Island, stylist Mobolaji Dawodu told Vogue that the story is centered around the African diaspora to celebrate influences from various countries. The effect somewhat similar to Ruth Carter’s work for Black Panther, but perhaps the futuristic world of Wakanda is far enough away from reality that diluting these different cultures into one melting pot is less messy. Stripping away the island’s identity inadvertently taps into the idea that the Caribbean islands – and Latin America or African countries, in general – are all just the same.

Guava Island is a postcard, a pretty picture with pretty people at the center, and the locals are outside the frame. There is very little Spanish in the film and no subtitles. This happens most notably in a blessing given by an elder to Kofi that is quickly ignored when Deni arrives on the scene. He’s the star after all. Distancing the narrative from present-day Cuba also means throwing off the political baggage that comes with the country wherever it goes. Most Americans watching Guava Island will only see the lush environment and weather-beaten buildings without having to think about the reasons this place looks like a fantasy island. Considering that Cuba is facing a food shortage from the fallout of Venezuela’s crisis and the Cold War embargo is heating up again, this feels like a very one-sided, flimsy postcard.

Letitia Wright in ‘Guava Island.’ Courtesy of Amazon.
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Choosing to film in Cuba feels purposeful. There are so many bureaucratic hoops to jump through, whether or not you play by the government’s rules to shoot a movie (and for a production this size, it’s not likely that they snuck onto the island without paperwork). Why go there instead of Barbados, Rihanna’s home island, or Puerto Rico, which as a U.S. territory wouldn’t have confiscated some of the project’s costumes in customs? And then once they made it there, they made a project that reflects little of the island’s people, except for the few musicians shown in interstitial clips between Glover’s songs. Most Americans still have far to go when it comes to seeing Cuba, and Guava Island is only a painful reminder of this shortsightedness.