Following a stellar performance as both host and musical guest on Saturday Night Live, Donald Glover capped off the weekend by dropping a surprise Childish Gambino track that pretty much guaranteed he’d be dominating the trending topics on Twitter. The Hiro Murai-directed video for “This Is America” is a symbolism-rich nightmare that juxtaposes joyous dance routines with unflinching violence in both a reflection and condemnation of American culture. It’s the kind of video you finish watching and want to immediately watch again because you’re sure you missed something. Needless to say, people are still unpacking this thing.
First, let’s take a look at Dear White People creator Justin Simien who wrote a lengthy Twitter thread praising Glover’s work and analyzing the video as an indictment of how consumerism is used to control and oppress people of color.
(Note: the guitarist in the video is not actually Trayvon Martin’s father, but rather a man who looks a lot like him.)
Drawing similarities between Gambino’s performance in the video (“a combination of popular dance memes sporadically interrupted by bug eyes”) and the infamous minstrel character Jim Crow, Simien explains how “This Is America” presents the two realities of black life in the United States. There is the front-facing, marketable, and often culturally appropriated side, but there is also the brutal, violent, and constantly threatened underbelly. The allusion to Jim Crow is especially fitting since he was a wildly known pop culture icon that later became synonymous with the apartheid of the American South.
Simien continues by saying that participation in that pre-packaged, viral-content-ready version of black culture—which both he and Glover are forced to trade in as entertainers—may “include the misleading of impressionable black youth” and can result in the limiting of our attention spans which is “articulated through razor thin depth of field” in the video.
This particular visual symbolism—a crystal clear foreground featuring choreographed dance routines and an obscured background filled with death and mayhem—has been noted by others as well. While our eyes are drawn to Gambino and groups of young people performing all our favorite dances, we completely miss the man jumping to his death, the grim figure riding a pale white horse, and the masked teenagers capturing the whole thing on their cell phones.
Finally, there is an abundance of gun imagery in the video that is impossible to miss. An article on Vox details how “This Is America” can be interpreted as an indictment of gun and police violence, with references to the Charleston church shooting and Black Lives Matter protests. Others have noticed the disturbing treatment of the man shot in the beginning of the video (dragged away unceremoniously) and the gun Gambino used to kill him (carefully wrapped in silk and taken away).
Despite all the Twitter threads, all the analysis, and all the cultural criticism, it’s clear we’ve only scratched the surface of this song. It’s a testament to Donald Glover as an artist that he’s able to create a conversation like this with a music video all while exploring similar themes on his own show—and, you know, starring in a Star Wars movie.
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