The dust has (nearly) started to settle after the release of Childish Gambino aka Donald Glover’s goosebump-inducing video for ‘This Is America’ which became an overnight cultural phenomenon for its outstanding commentary on the state of America as a whole. With gun violence a central theme, Glover also tackles the bystander effect and the way entertainment and showmanship are employed to distract the typical everyperson from the real goings on in society.
Even foregoing the song’s content and themes the video itself is an outstanding piece of cinematography, shot seemingly in one take, perhaps two with the slight change toward the end. The camera follows Gambino as he slowly dances towards a man in a chair who has a bag over his head following the opening shot of assumedly the same man, unhooded, playing a guitar. Some have noted how striking the guitar-playing man’s resemblance is to that of Tracy Martin, father of Trayvon, a young black man who was fatally shot by George Zimmerman in one of the most infamous cases of racially charged shootings in recent U.S. history.
The tone for the video and song is then set when, in the middle of his exaggerated dancing which includes the pulling of many strange facial expressions, Gambino stops and strikes a pose before elaborately pulling a pistol, shooting the seated man in the head execution-style and turning his suddenly expressionless face to camera;
“This Is America.”
Gambino’s choice of dance choreography appears to have much deeper interpretations than simply looking so positive and fun in juxtaposition to the other content of the song and video as it might have looked on first viewing to a layman, a category I include myself in with regards to dance. The style of the dancing hits home and makes the viewer see it all in a different way when Gambino assumes the pose in which he shoots the first victim of violence in the video, as most with any knowledge of black and specifically African-American history would have been jarred as I was by the similarity of Gambino’s pose with that of the familiar figure of ‘Jim Crow’ as played by Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a blackface performer from the early 19th Century.
From this early point the themes immediately start to seemingly overlap. Gambino’s character commits a shooting while dancing like a 19th century African-American caricature which can reasonably be believed to be a comment on America’s old fashioned stereotyping with regards to crime committed by black people. His gun is then whisked away from him by an assistant, for want of a better word, who handles the gun with great care and wraps it in a red velvet cloth while the body of the victim is bundled up and dragged off screen in the opposite direction, depicting how greater care is shown to guns in America than is shown to the victims of gun violence. This serves as a horrific reminder of how some sections of the U.S. population cry havoc to defend their second amendment rights while disregarding the hundreds that die in shootings every day that could have been prevented by tighter gun control. A similar thing happens again midway through the song, this time with Gambino using an automatic weapon to gun down a church choir in a swinging, almost lazy movement after entering the room. This seems to be a direct reference to the Charleston church shooting in 2015 perpetrated by white supremacist Dylann Roof in which 9 people were killed.
This is as good a time as any, I suppose, to point out that in interviews since the video’s release Donald Glover has refused to comment on or explain the meanings behind ‘This Is America’ suggesting that it is up to the people to draw their own conclusions from their own interpretations and therefore nothing I write here I can attest to being the “true” meaning behind the song’s contents, just what theories I and people I have read and spoke to have drawn. I clarify this now because it is now that I will join my first two hypothetical dots; I interpret this opening as a deliberate exemplification of the double standard within the core American right, with the ‘Jim Crow’-esque dancing establishing that Gambino is playing the role of the stereotyped African American in the act of committing a shooting, a stereotype that the American right is usually more than happy to perpetuate as a means of social division but, when it appears that the crime was facilitated by the availability of a gun, the gun was protected and hidden away so that it did not remain in the public eye, instead our eyes were drawn back to the dancing of Gambino and the uniformed school children that had joined as backing dancers from off screen, further underlining the hypocrisy of protecting guns while children are surrounded and potentially influenced by gun users.
Elsewhere throughout the video we see pieces of social commentary that are not explicitly referred to but are still damning indictments of American culture. Examples include rioting throughout the warehouse in which the video is being shot which have been an issue in America for a while now, from Charlottesville to Berkeley to Ferguson, bringing attention to the extremely high levels of civil unrest in the U.S.
There is also a shot of several people sitting watching the violence through their phones from a distance, again a comment on wider society, this time focusing on spectator or bystander culture and could also be seen as a wider metaphor for the inaction of some groups failing to control the unrest in the country. These, and many other individual occurrences such as the appearance at one point of what seems to be a representation of one of the biblical Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding through a riot in the background, are enveloped by one of the video’s more perpetuated themes, the theme of distraction.
‘This Is America’ maybe should come with a titlecard that reads “you should watch this at least five times” because there is so much going on and, if you’re anything like me, you miss a heck of a lot of what’s going on the first one or two times you see it because your eye is drawn, quite deliberately, to the dancing of Gambino and the people he surrounds himself with at various points. As I’ve already mentioned, I’m far from an expert when it comes to dancing of any kind, but the dancing in ‘This Is America’ is absolutely hypnotic and hard not to look at which I believe to be very much the point. I believe the dancing to represent the “hey don’t look over there, look over here instead!” culture of American news coverage, something which has become more and more prevalent from Donald Trump’s planned military parades in Washington to his supporters using Hillary Clinton’s emails to deflect from any comment or criticism. The part of a verse in which Gambino smiles innocently and says “I’m so pretty” draws attention to how he is using himself and his actions as a distraction.
The final fresh imagery used in the video is one that I missed altogether and had to have pointed out to me by a much more perceptive person. Towards the end of the video Gambino takes out a joint… blunt… doobie? I don’t speak ‘Youth’. A marijuana cigarette anyway, and begins to light it. My friend suggested that the fact he lights it off camera is a comment on censorship and how drugs are more commonly maligned as a danger to society than guns, which are of course both shown and shown being used gratuitously throughout the video. Looking at this scene again myself though I also notice how this scene leads almost directly to Gambino being chased down a dark abandoned hallway by blurry, but noticeably white, people. This could just be a summary shot showing Gambino desperately trying to escape from the goings on in America but my theory is different. I see him being chased down as a black man being hunted as a pariah for smoking weed, exemplifying another double standard in the U.S., especially as both of the gun crimes seen seem to be related to firstly the Trayvon Martin case in which George Zimmerman, a white-latino mixed race man was the shooter and secondly the Charleston church shooting, in which perpetrator Dylann Roof was a white supremacist. This gives me a whole new take on the video, seeing the main section in the open warehouse as more of an act in which Gambino isn’t playing a black man, but America itself and the later chase-sequence section is the first and only piece in which he is playing himself, or at least a version of himself as a representation of African-Americans. When he is being chased it strikes me as a visual representation of what it might feel like to be a black person in America in the 21st Century.
There is so much going on in the ‘This Is America’ video, a lot of which I haven’t even began to touch on but I believe it’s the first truly important artwork of 2018, not in terms of music as the musical content of the song takes a firm place on the backseat here. The song would have very little if any of its gravitas without the video. 2018 is set to be another horribly turbulent year politically and socially which makes things like ‘This Is America’ unfortunately more necessary than ever, artists like Donald Glover shouldn’t have to feel responsible for calling attention to society’s failings but he’s done a fantastic job here and sparked a discussion, which is the only way I can see America crawling out of the rut it’s in any time soon. The U.S.A. is a country that has lost self-awareness in the last 20 years or so culminating in the disastrous 2016 election and the resulting calamitous presidency that is still somehow ongoing and they are becoming a parody of themselves in several ways. Hopefully the more things like ‘This Is America’ get people talking, the closer they can drag America back to its senses.