In his provocative new video This is America, Donald Glover, as his hip-hop alias Childish Gambino, artfully uses the surreal to comment on black lives
Once upon a night in my black life, I bought a 9mm Glock 16 replete with an extended clip off the street, bought it because I’d been robbed for the drugs I sold a time or two and decided against being a mark again, that the next dude that tried me would suffer bullets.
Decades ago, that was my America. Decades later, it’s an America that still exists for untold others. And though that shouldn’t be news, it’s a truth worth reminding us. In his artful and provocative new video This is America, Donald Glover, as his hip-hop alias Childish Gambino, attests to as much: “Yeah, this is America (woo ayy) / Guns in my area (word, my area) I got the strap (ayy, ayy) / I gotta carry ’em.”
The film is directed by Hiro Murai, Glover’s frequent collaborator on Atlanta, and it is indeed ballistic. It begins in a warehouse with the artist Calvin the Second shown seated and strumming a guitar while choral sounds and choir voices sing: “We just wanna party.” Glover, who has been in the background dances over, bare-chested, mimicking the expressions and gestures of a minstrel. He proceeds to pull a gun from his waistband and shoot Calvin in the back of his now bag-covered head. After that murder, Glover shouts “This is America”, and the music shifts from the choral sounds to a trap music baseline.
A crew of school uniform-clad children join Glover and together they perform a choreographed routine that features a panoply of dances including Atlanta’s whip and the South African Gwara Gwara. For most of the video, Glover and the schoolchildren keep right on boogying in seeming obliviousness, while a riot suggestive of several cultural and historical references erupts behind them.
Near the middle of the video, Glover side-moonwalks into a room while a choir in faux jubilance sings: “Get your money, black man (get your money).” Someone off-screen tosses Glover an assault rifle and, in a scene suggestive of the Charleston mass shooting, Glover massacres the choir members and decamps while a mass of people rush into the room.
Later moments of the video show Glover and his gleeful dance crew grooving again, and also a solo of him channeling Michael Jackson on the roof of an old car – all of which is still backdropped by symbol-laden mayhem. At the end of the video, Glover is shown running in a dark room from a blurry mob of white folks.
The video was released after Glover’s hosting and performing duties on the most recent Saturday Night Live. At the time I write this, it has racked up upwards of 47m views as well as dozens of published critiques and umpteen social media posts. The responses have been passionate. Dear White People creator Justin Simien wrote an essay in Twitter posts proclaiming its artistic merits, and scores of celebrities have lauded it with superlatives: “iconic”, “brilliant”, “genius”. A smaller number of viewers, however, have been critical of the video, voicing among their concerns, the morality of Glover’s motives, the effect of portraying gratuitous violence, the wisdom of summoning images of Jim Crow in America’s charged racial climate.
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