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.