The easiest reading of Childish Gambino’s — Donald Glover’s — earth-shattering new video “This Is America” would be to say that Glover is at least mildly disappointed with hip-hop’s insistence on dancing while the world is going to hell around us.
But that’s the thing about this damn video. It defies easy readings — outright rejects them, in fact. It looks at your easy readings with a side-eye and a smirk, dismissing them out of hand because it’s got bigger things on its agenda than just being a searing indictment of “gun culture” or a head-shaking admonishment of pop culture.
Those things are in there, to be sure. How else to read Glover’s gunning down of an entire choir or his execution of a hooded figure at the beginning of the video than as a pointed rebuke of this country’s fascination with weapons of war and its various abuses of the “right” to bear arms?
But to reduce this video to just a complicated visual equivalent of a “guns are bad” PSA is to do a disservice to all of the other things this video says. Calling the dancing in the foreground a “distraction” from the violence going on around Gambino and his “childish” companions belies the necessity of finding moments of joy in today’s desolate times. There are at least two ways to read every symbol, every reference, every moment of shock or visual choice throughout the video. “This Is America” is, all at once, protest, satire, and high art. It’s challenging as great art should be — it invites both commentary and debate, and it has a lot to say about culture, society, art, politics, current events, but refuses to provide easy answers for any of the problems it evokes.
To be fair, it’s also very easy to go the other way. We’ve experienced the downfall of self-professed genius extremely recently — it’s almost natural to be cynical about Glover’s intentions and goals with the release of “This Is America.” He’s commodifying black pain, he’s signaling wokeness with provocative imagery that arguably doesn’t really know what it’s trying to say, critics claim he’s grasping at a message without knowing what it is, or that he’s coming to term with his Blackness in real time after a lifetime of running away from it, grappling with it, or refusing to engage with its impact on his life and art.
However, it’s almost impossible, watching the video for the third, fourth, fifth, tenth, twentieth time, to determine that there isn’t some thought guiding “This Is America”‘s provocation. You can say he’s just throwing imagery at the wall to see what sticks, but even if he is, a lot of it sticks.
The early execution scene evokes images of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, while the AK-47 gunning down the choir recalls Dylann Roof’s terroristic attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. They’re related, as much as the obvious references to police brutality and trap rap all spring from the same domineering impulses and unique obsession with guns as tools of power and symbols of masculinity. It’s all American.
The dances too, are American, but they’re also African, like the spirit of the ancestors speaking through our feet — generations and oceans removed. They speak to the resilience of African culture and African American spirit, that in the midst of oppression and terror and horrifying violence, we can still find the strength to keep dancing, even though it might be criticized as a distraction. Glover’s facial expressions as he joins in speak to his ambivalence about participation; there is both reticence to join and moments of pure delight in being able to escape from the bleakness of his surroundings for a stolen moment of jubilation.
“This Is America” is contrary and contradictory, the way the real America is. We decry gun violence even as we glorify it in movies, on television, in our music. We are complicit in war crimes even as we tut-tut other nations for injustices committed on their own citizens. We seek to distract ourselves, even as we loudly admonish each other to “wake up, sheeple.” We may not always know what we’re trying to say, but we want to be heard. Donald Glover’s video may be trying to say something or just start a conversation, but whether through accident or design, it’s something that it seems we desperately needed, just at the time we needed it most. In all its contradictions and cavorting, it lives up to its title — this is, indeed, America.