Donald Glover hosted Saturday Night Live over the weekend and his alter ego Childish Gambino served as its musical guest. Rather than basking in the glow of a funny show with two hot performances, Glover pulled a fast one: he released a video during the show that redirected the focus from comedy to artistry.
The video for Childish Gambino’s new song “This is America” breaks new ground for the rapper/singer. In the modern era, African American entertainers and athletes dominate the culture, yet police violence against African Americans continues unabated. Gambino is posing a question about all this: What does America want from black people, and more particularly, black artists?
Like Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade, “This is America” is open to multiple meanings. This is not a polemic, nor a political statement. The video is directed by Hiro Murai, director of Glover’s TV show Atlanta, and much like the TV show, it is a searing commentary on life in America. It opens with a shirtless Gambino executing a black man with a bag over his head. The pose Glover strikes here is the one used by a Jim Crow minstrel dancer. This is our first clue that the purpose of this video will not be to show off how hot Glover looks without his shirt. (Of course, in this Glover is demonstrating the contradictory ways that black bodies are used in America: for labor, for sexuality, for mocking, for exultation).
Even the song’s title seems to be a subtle rejoinder to liberal Americans who say “this is not America, this is not who we are,” when confronted with the racism that exists in America. Gambino’s song doesn’t let that statement rest, since the violence against black bodies is the very thing that America was built on. If that seems harsh to you, take a look at the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which documents the brutal reign of lynching in America. The brutality did not end after the Civil War, and it is not over yet. (Two African American men, Ramon Smith and Jarron Moreland, were lynched last week in Oklahoma.)
Gambino’s sinewy dancing after the shooting is met by uneasiness, as we await the next horror while he puts on a minstrel show, shucking and jiving for our entertainment. Next, a choir gets their moment to shine, but Gambino guns them down. This is unmistakably a reference to the Charleston massacre, which was perpetrated by a white supremacist man who murdered people in church. “This is America,” says the song after the shooting.
The song and dancing mimics joy, but brutalizes the viewer with the imagery. This is Glover’s ultimate aim, to destabilize the viewer’s expectations that he should just be funny and talented without thinking too much about his status as a black person in America. It’s as if Glover is saying “we know you all enjoy black music, but this other sh** is messed up.” It’s a statement that he will not be willfully blind, a la Kanye West, about the condition of black Americans.
Gambino dances with children wearing school uniforms in the foreground, while chaos happens on the periphery of the shot. There’s a burning car, a man on a horse (death riding a pale horse), cop cars, people running. This is an indictment of white America, where people are always up for appropriating and enjoying black culture, as long as it does not dare examine injustice. Black entertainment as a commodity is central to Glover’s thesis. This video is more poignant because Kanye is running around America denying slavery and racism or “wishing for white freedom,” as an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates posits in The Atlantic this morning.
Some criticized Glover’s use of violent imagery, but that also begs the question of why famous white directors can be celebrated for violent scenes (Quentin Tarantino comes to mind). Isn’t the true answer that the scenario Glover is showing us in “This is America” simply hits too close to home? The realness of violence is what upsets people, rather than the fantasy. And here too it is safe to assume Glover wanted to make that very point.
Glover’s statement comes at a time where he is about to be celebrated and recognized all over the planet for playing Lando Calrissian in the upcoming young Han Solo movie. But Glover is announcing that he will not simply ascend the fame throne without asking what it all means. Watching “This is America,” we get the sense that Glover, for all his immense talents, hasn’t even reached his prime yet.