Occasionally a metaphorical bomb detonates in the entertainment world, an explosion of images and ideas that’s impossible to ignore. That happened recently with the release of Childish Gambino’s graphically provocative new single, “This Is America.”
The provocation comes less from the song’s lyrics than from its accompanying video. In it, Gambino—a stage name for actor Donald Glover (Solo: A Star Wars Story; Atlanta)—alternates between dancing wildly and unexpectedly shooting people (as others smile and dance and watch and film him, too).
It’s the kind of video that makes you ask, What is going on here? What is Glover’s trying to say, what with the stark contrast between of people laughing and singing one second and coldblooded executions the next? What is Glover (along with the video’s acclaimed Japanese director, Hiro Murai) trying to communicate?
For the last week, think pieces delving into those questions have proliferated online, offering multilayered interpretations that parse virtually every frame of the video. Such intense cultural focus has contributed to that video raking in more than 100 million views in about a week, propelling “This Is America” to a No. 1 debut on Billboard.
Glover is unquestionably saying something about American culture here. And it’s none too flattering.
The song’s first verse focuses on finding pleasure in the moment: “We just wanna party/Party just for you,” Glover tells us. “And I know you wanna party/Party just for me.” Then the focus turns toward a woman: “Girl, you got me dancin’/Dance and shake that frame.”
The chorus, in contrast, warns vaguely, “This is America/Don’t catch you slippin’ now.” Glover hints at difficulties with the police: “Look at how I’m livin’ now/Police be trippin’ now.” That suggestion of conflict gets fleshed out further when he adds, “Yeah, this is America/Guns in my area (word, my area)/I got the strap/I gotta carry ’em.” Later, we learn that the threat of violence is a fact of life for those flush with cash (“I’m on Gucci”) from peddling illegal wares (“Contraband, contraband, contraband.”)
Meanwhile, Glover’s granny lobs a suggestion of her own into the mix: “Grandma told me, ‘Get your money.'” The song concludes with guest contributor Young Thug alluding to a dog’s confinement, which some are interpreting as a reference to slavery and/or racial injustice: “You just a big dawg, ayy/I kenneled him in the back yard/No, probably ain’t life to a dog/For a big dog.” (In terms of explicit language, we also hear one pairing of “mother” with the f-word.)
The portrait of life in America that Glover paints here is a combination of pleasure-seeking, risk taking, violence and ever-present racial tension. Those themes are present in the video as well—albeit amplified to much more explicit levels.
Glover plays a character who dances, shirtless, through a large warehouse, sometimes with a retinue of smiling young people shimmying in sync right behind him. He shoots one man (who has a burlap bag over his head) in the back of the head. (We see blood splatter from the exit wound.) Another scene finds Glover dancing one moment in front of a church choir, then gunning them down with an automatic assault rifle—a scene that most commentators have interpreted as a reference to the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.
As the video continues, we see scenes of urban unrest, filled with abandoned cars and people running away. A police cruiser with lights flashing is among the empty vehicles, another visual clue some believe references in the 1992 Los Angeles riots. In the end, we see a panicked Glover fleeing, pursued by (one presumes) authorities intent upon capturing him.
There are so many things going on in this video that it’s become something of a cultural Rorschach test. And interpreters have offered varying explanations for the symbols and satire here. In general, however, most agree that Glover wants to communicate a serious message about the subject of race relations and police brutality circa 2018.
The video for “This Is America” delivers a jarring, jabbing viewing experience. I know Glover is trying to say something significant about race, violence, justice and culture with this video. But I can’t help but raise some questions of my own after watching it.
In a culture plagued with random, dehumanizing violence, does a video that deliberately portrays still more of it really help matters? Does it force us to confront the degradation and tragedy of such acts? Or does it desensitize us further? It could be that the answer to both of those questions is a paradoxical yes.
Still, how many of the millions who’ve seen this video went away pondering that paradox? Given the power of such images today, how many might have missed Glover’s intended cultural commentary?
This historical moment is riven by injustice and violence, grievance and racial animus. Donald Glover, in the artful guise of Childish Gambino, painfully provokes us to gaze upon the bloody casualties of these conflicts. But I think it’s still fair to ask whether such shock art—even when critically acclaimed—potentially undermines its intent by unintentionally glorifying the very thing it seeks to condemn.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.