If the hallmark of great art is the way it gets people talking, Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” video has managed to achieve full-on masterpiece status in just a few short days.
Dissecting the video has become a flavour-of-the-hour cottage industry, that having everything to do with the countless, sometimes obvious, sometimes cleverly coded references. Over the course of four relentlessly powerful minutes, the rapper born Donald Glover alludes to everything from Jim Crow minstelry to slavery to the shiny happy American entertainment industry to Richard Pryor to cellphone voyeurism.
And most notably, there’s also gun violence—graphically rendered and purposefully confrontational. That violence is responsible for the video’s most shocking moments. Gambino starts by putting a bullet through the head of a black guitarist, who after his duties entertaining are over, ends up sitting on a chair with a sack over his head. It's a blunt, opening-statement political commentary on the way America has historically treated its black citizens.
Later he’s handed a machine gun, which he uses to mow down a church choir in joyous mid-song, the reference a clear one to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting tragedy in 2015.
It’s important to note what happens after both of these shootings. The bodies are either instantly dragged away or completely forgotten, the gun in each case carefully and lovingly swaddled in a cloth blanket.
Gun violence is a bitch. But the immediate message in America after such incidents is that guns are to be treated reverentially, protected as a God-given right.
Two seconds after each shooting, it’s back to business as usual, Glover singing and dancing even as police and crowds are in chaos behind him.
Death is something that happens as a temporary distraction. Once death has ridden through the day on a white stallion (watch for it) you can get back to the business of being distracted.
By Instagram. By Twitter. By Facebook. And by YouTube, the first place we all go whenever something awful happens in the world. It’s no accident that Glover and director Hiro Murai place a group of unfazed iPhone-wielding kids on a catwalk above the action in “This Is America”.
We now live in a world where we watch tragedy through a phone screen, whether we’re there on the front line or reliving the misery of others at our computer minutes later. And because of that, we’ve become every bit as desensitized as Gambino, who’s distractedly back to entertaining after each moment of horror.
There’s plenty more to chew over.
- A black man adopting a shooting stance while not actually holding a gun, with North Americans sadly well aware how that usually turns out, especially when white policemen are involved.
- Black children, in retro-’60s school clothing, dancing with Glover in multiple scenes, cheerfully oblivious, as kids often are, to the hellishness world around them. Not that they do so beamingly and without question, driving home the blinding power of celebrity.
- Glover’s dancing, choreographed by Sherrie Silver, which is so hypnotically exaggerated and over-the-top that it somehow serves to instantly distract from the bigger picture.
- The ending where Glover is seen running, seemingly terrified, through the dark while whites chase him down. If you don’t get it, you need to read up on American history.
- The fact that the car Glover climbs onto right after firing up a joint is part of a collection straight out of the Rodney King '90s.
Just as astonishing as the way that “This Is America” has instantly blown up the Internet with 52 million YouTube views in four days, is the fact that those who might learn something have been quick to attack the video.
Predictably, the American right was the first to pile on.
Radio host and devoted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones suggested that Glover was doing some sort of voodoo in “This Is America”.
In a statement that makes one wonder what drugs he’s on, and where we can get some, Jones said: “Pull me in with voodoo dancing, people in trance, and that is a voodoo dance 110 percent. You’ve got all of that then personified through artwork but they don’t think you know what you’re actually looking at. The Clintons like to go and do their own voodoo rituals, that’s in the news.”
Radio host Jesse Lee Peterson, who once called African-Americans stranded in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina “welfare-pampered”, “lazy”, and “immoral”, has suggested “This Is America” is a showcase for “how out of control black people are". Peterson also went on to argue black people like the video “because blacks call good evil and evil good.”
Bravely, and considerably more intelligently, Vanity Fair’s K. Austin Collins wrote that the video seems insincere. He went on to observe: “The video somehow feels too convenient, too neat a gloss on whatever ideas it thinks it has” and “What’s he selling? I’m wary of any claim that 'We' are distracted from black violence, because who’s 'we,' really?”
What Glover is selling of course is the argument that, for an advanced country, the U.S. is fucked in too many ways to count.
And, in the larger picture, that art is at its greatest when it's challenging audiences.
With “This Is America”, he's done just that.