‘This is America:’ genius or just a spectacle?

Donald Glover's music video received a lot of attention after its release last summer

Take a whistle-stop tour of Twitter last May and the likelihood is that you would have been greeted by scenes from the music video to Childish Gambino’s song ‘This is America.’ In the video, Glover trots through a warehouse, bare-chested and with a smile my dentist would swoon at, seamlessly transitioning between two extremes: dancing jauntily and gunning people down. Not an everyday sequence of events I suppose, but each to his own. The shootings themselves bare disconcerting resemblance to the Charleston church massacre in 2015 and the Trayvon Martin murder in 2012, and they are both portrayed unflinchingly in a rather gruesome and bloody manner that is not for the faint-hearted. It is also worth mentioning that everyone in the video is black, and this has provoked discussion about Glover’s message regarding racial equality and firearms in America.

It must be said that the video verges on bizarre at first glance, and the thoughts of a first-time viewer can be encapsulated eloquently by a certain YouTube commenter, to whom the award for Best Quote must be awarded to for her fine prosaic piece: ‘adjkfjkyhghtlll.’ Articulate work, Karen. Genius. Seriously though, one could argue that this is rather an accurate portrayal of the confusion that the music video seems to deliberately perpetuate, at least initially. The horror of a bullet to the back of a man’s skull comes during a celebratory song which includes the lyrics ‘we just want to party’ and ‘we just want the money’; an entire gospel choir is gunned down with ease and little ceremony; a car, wracked with flames, is acknowledged with barely a glance. Not to mention the white horse that is hoofing it through the shot rather majestically in the background. At any rate, of the many dull things in life (junk-mail, slow wifi, traffic, laundry, Theresa May) nobody can claim that the video is boring.

Ten very bloody murders in, and if you’re anything like me, you’re probably already wondering who invited Jack the Ripper (bit of a kill-joy if you ask me,) and whether or not somebody is going to ring up Old Bill. Perhaps if the NHS had some money someone could also request a paramedic to deal with the bloody spectacle, but a good old paper towel will have to do. They’re very sturdy.

Upon closer inspection however, the video becomes more and more interesting and less and less absurd. One popular interpretation of the bewildering juxtaposition of murder and dance is that it is a denunciation of the distractions, such as popular dance, that keep many Americans from noticing how the world around them is falling apart. The contrast between white love of black dance with the continual violence projected onto these same black people is a powerful indictment of the unsettling contradictions in American society, and it questions the polarity of the United States’ relation to blackness. ‘Are we your blessing or your bane?’ it asks. 

This represents the balancing act that every African-American goes through while living in a country where their oppression is not only routine, but integral. Glover’s joyful performance of several popular black dance trends as everything crumbles around him seems to say, ‘Well, who cares! What have any of you ever done for me?’ The short film is a direct call for the viewer to investigate American attitudes to weapons, which in this video are treated with more respect than black corpses, and also American attitude to the media, which desensitises us to extreme violence. Bloody genius. You get the gist that if Glover decided to run for President, his slogan would be ‘Make America Sane Again.’ I would personally campaign for ‘Make America Great Britain Again,’ but I suppose we can’t all get our way. You have to concede that Glover’s got a point- the very fact that the dance and murder scenes are already being chopped into fun little GIFS online, divorcing them from the video’s brutality, only serves to prove his message.

Still, despite all of this, many feel that ‘This is America’ is a bit like an animal rights activist who won’t let you look at a ham sandwich but will still hang onto their Canada Goose puffer for dear life. That is to say, rather hypocritical. And you can see why. Here we have Donald Glover, who chooses to argue against a white media culture that desensitises its viewers to violence against black people in a way that plays exactly into that: showing even more black violence against black people. Trump-level logic right there everybody! A truly miraculous leap of reason. Of course, the counter is that it’s necessary to send a message about the epidemic of the murder of black people by showing that violence in unflinching terms, but I would argue that, though effective, this goofy irreverence trivialises the loss of life. After all, the shootings enacted in the video are replications of real-life tragedies, and they should not be used merely as fictional devices to shock, scandalise, and jar. Glover is portraying violence against black people as entertainment for white people. Though it is admirable to discuss blackness in front of the white gaze and under capitalism’s control, and though Glover’s message is an accurate and thoughtful one, I would argue to some extent that ‘This is America’ just lacks enough self-awareness about what it’s presenting to an audience.

Flawed as it may be, ‘This is America’ is still an immensely worthwhile short film with a compelling message. Perhaps it is impossible to deliver a perfect video in a world that- let’s face it- is pretty messed up already. After all, what does it really say about us that the only way we can even begin to create empathy for black lives is by constantly depicting black murder?

Priya V