Music, Magic, and Martyrdom—Exploring Questions of Freedom in Guava Island

After brainstorming for each of the prompt questions, I felt the most interested and engaged in prompt number 2. I was absolutely blown away by Guava Island—the message, the music, the performances, the magic—and feel compelled to write about it, to think about it, and to encourage discussion of it in class. I think before we get into comparing and contrasting the different works we have studied, it’s important to fully work through each one as a complete whole on its own, and think through the message each creator (author, performer, singer, dancer, character) sends to us as the audience. To me, Guava Island contibuted strong and powerful additions to our class questions regarding blackness, performance, and freedom. Here is my current response to this prompt, as I understand it today:

Guava Island is a magical film full of music, dance, and beauty—which on one hand veils the dark truths, violence, and corruption that lays beneath, but on the other hand simultaneously amplifies these harsh realities. The movie is bookended by children’s folklore stories—mothers telling babies beautiful, magical myths about the island, facilitating innocence and creating an air of intrigue and imagination to their young lives. These stories are generational and familial, creating a sense of identity and pride in that identity, despite the realities of racism, classism, and violence in this community. 

The characters we are shown in Guava Island are not free. They are bound by the chains of wealth inequality, forced to work menial jobs to support a dictatorial regime. They are oppressed, they are poor, and they are exploited. However, the life Deni and Kofi lead together embodies the ideals of freedom. Deni is a creator, a musician, an artist. He sings, he skips, he dances—both in performative spaces (like ads on the radio or festival performances) and in individual, home-spaces (like how he sings while he walks, or sings and dances to Kofi on the beach). When they are feeling low, Deni brings hope and joy back into their lives, filling their days with music and magic despite hardships they face. As Kofi says, “We both kept dreaming, because in the end, what do we have but dreams.”

While Deni’s mystical and lyrical qualities give himself, his friends and family, and much of their community, beautiful elements of joy, and function positively in his and their lives, the negative repercussions in living this fantasy or romanticized life are also clear in the film. His speech/singing/performance of “This is America” calls attention to him at work, leading to his forceful relocation to Red’s office. In the end, it is his insistence on performing at the festival that directly leads to the death of his physical body. However, there’s a clear sense of the remaining essence of his spirit in the community and in his loved ones during the funeral procession/joyful celebration of life and parade. Both in life and in death, his child-like wonder, imagination, and magic prevail against oppression, placing power, agency, and hope back in the hands of the people. 

So—does his magic and music give him freedom, or take it away? In the end, he functions as a martyr for his people. It is in his death that they are given new life, and finally have the courage and the cause to stand up against mistreatment and oppression—yet, it’s unclear what follows. Are they free now? Or will they slip back into their demeaning roles? Either way, he gives them the gift of rest and rejuvenation, which feels like a statement on the generational and historical overworking of the black body. Donald Glover sends a message through the film that black people deserve time off, they deserve opportunities for entertainment, they deserve music and magic and rest. Through this understanding of the narrative presented, Deni reclaims the notion of freedom, in a world where he is, effectively, in chains.

Questions for the class:

  • Should we understand Deni’s child-like wonder, imagination, and magic as primarily constructive or destructive? I believe the film offers plenty of evidence for both. 
  • While Deni’s fantastical worldview protects Kofi from the darkness surrounding them—or at least attempts to lighten it—does her reluctance to ground him in reality protect him as well? More specifically, how does Kofi withholding the truth of her pregnancy function in the plot and in the larger message? Would Deni knowing have changed the ending?

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