Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ video is a beautiful nightmare
Waking up from staying woke: Genius or not, Gambino’s frightening dreamlike opus is right on time
The night I watched Childish Gambino’s video for “This Is America,” I was scared. Having skipped the song’s premiere on Saturday Night Live, I’d seen the images and their deconstructions on the internet all weekend. And when I finally sat down to watch the full product, as opposed to just a collection of GIFs and clips, I didn’t even have it in me to turn on the sound.
When it comes to “what people on the internet say about black [insert word here],” I am instantly leery. And, as a matter of course, I’m instantly fearful of any form of black public expression that white people either identify as something they can’t live without or pull away from. With zero sound, the images from Donald Glover’s latest musical project felt like monsters under the bed.
I had a nightmare that night.
The next morning, the headlines were predictable, analytical and, in a basic way, accurate. Yes, Glover’s new work combines (insert description for juxtaposition of serious and jovial that represents how black people either stay sane, or don’t). And the new work certainly was designed to provoke (insert group of people here who don’t want to believe that the symbolism of black people killing other black people is ever effective). It is all of these things, certainly.
It wasn’t that I needed someone else to show me in video form exactly what’s torn our nation apart. It’s that with no real major tricks or magic, he could scare me enough into remembering that I won’t see this disaster alleviated in my lifetime. Which, in itself, compounds the original fear, which is why this video is keeping me up at night. As the kids say, I’ve never felt more seen in my life.
Sometimes I don’t automatically wake up from a nightmare, even when I know I’m having one. There’s a weird part of me that knows I’m sleeping and wants to explore whether or not I can tackle the specific fear. In this video, there’s an eerily similar pace: Things come and go, and images from the recesses from your brain pop up in ways you never imagined.
You’ve already read about the guns. The choir. The white horse. The cars. The African dance influences. And, of course, SZA. But those are specifics in a deliberate and detailed oeuvre already witnessed by likely more than hundreds of millions of people.
But to be clear, this isn’t about anointing Glover/Gambino as some saint. We’ve all seen how problematic that turns out in many cases, and it’s also unfair to the artists themselves. The “genius” category puts everything in a spotlight that is skewed and often pointless — and this is not to discredit Glover’s work by any means.
However, Glover is not without his wild statements that some may find problematic. He’s said a few things about women of color, specifically Asian women, that are gross on every level. There are a slew of other things — about rape, about the Black Lives Matter movement — that would make some immediately write him off. He believes, specifically with regard to comedy, that “nothing is off-limits.”
The difference between Glover and, say, Kanye West (who is completely outta control; these theories of performance art, while perhaps buyable, are stupid on his part) or Kendrick Lamar or any other number of black male artists who’ve been elevated as creative stalwarts is that Glover’s done it almost completely from the inside. He was a writer for the beloved 30 Rock, and then Tina Fey turned around and embarrassed everyone. He starred on Community, a show that, while not a ratings monster, was beloved by an interesting sect of America. You might recall that comedy legend Chevy Chase, whose character was noted for his “curmudgeonly racism,” was booted off that program.
FX’s Atlanta speaks for itself in terms of impact, scope and influence, but the fact that he got such a plum gig at all is an indication of exactly how much Hollywood loves him. And that’s before we even get to the Grammy nominations, his movies and his historic role as Lando Calrissian in the upcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story. Glover is an insider who’s been allowed to influence within the real framework of the Hollywood system, as opposed to crash-landing as an outsider.
Which is important to take into consideration when we view “This Is America.” Glover’s been making content in many forms for years, and what the new song and video represent is a magnum opus-like culmination of all of that. The sequencing of the video alone is incredible. What the artist presents as chaos is less about being happenstance and random and more about being inevitable and ever-present. That’s a reality that’s hard to portray in such a short space of time. It’s also scary.
The inevitability of destruction. The specific mimicry of deplorable stereotypes that call back to an era we try to forget. Watching him dance the Jim Crow dance is jarring and familiar, which is both equally bizarre and, again, frightening — the real scope of the black experience in this country. It replays over and over again on television, movies, the internet and, yes, music videos. Glover/Gambino is not exploiting as much as he’s reminding us how well-woven all of it is into our consciousness. And, just like in a dream, where you’re never really sure what’s real and what’s a perverse version of your brain creating a reality you don’t know you can trust, this video makes you ask questions. How am I supposed to know what everything means if it’s all free-flowing, dangerous and unstoppable? That’s the reality of being black in this country in 2018.
We live in a nation where we have to create apps in order not to waste food. School administrators get violent with kids who are just looking to celebrate their educations. The Ku Klux Klan is legit making a comeback. Police officers are outfitting their cars with the words popo, so we can apparently feel better about fearing for our lives because the tormentors appear with a familiar name. Even with that being well-known, our generational trauma somehow allows us to make fun of the very specific way that we choose to kill each other. It’s insane on every level.
We’ve got 4-year-olds who are adept at handling guns.
i won’t say it, but you know pic.twitter.com/l1vME9bYtI
— Broderick Greer (@BroderickGreer) May 6, 2018
They do so in front of women appropriating cultures they don’t respect. Yet, all the while, these presentations of Gambino’s are somehow inspirational because it’s all we’ve ever had.
— Chuck Styles (@Chuck_Styles) May 7, 2018
The final part of this video is the most harrowing because it’s an indication of what I believe to be Glover’s real message: that the capitulation to actual fear results in a flight response that only descendants of slaves can understand. While running for his life from what appears to be a mob of people, the look on his face says it all. Trying to escape in a dark hallway to nothing, the people are gaining on him. He appears to be losing steam but is determined not to stop. The examination of that inner feeling of helplessness that is so often the black experience is what’s most important here. Glover taps into that sentiment in a way that’s hard to grasp if you’ve never lived it.
Sure, we all know this is a barbaric and screwed-up place on many levels. But it’s also a place where we’ve found a way to thrive in the worst of conditions: shirtless, deliberate and composed. He can sing about staying woke and its importance of that until he’s blue in the face, but “This Is America” reminds us that the reality is actually scarier than the nightmare we’ve been trapped in since we got here. Waking up might not get you anything but more pain, more despair and, thus, fewer years to enjoy the rights and privileges of life.
That is America. And that’s exactly what it was created to be.