Vigilant Citizen — May 16, 2018
This is America clearly struck a chord with this generation. But is there more to the character played by Donald Glover than meets the eye? We’ll look at the symbolism of This is America and its significance in today’s social climate.
After over 100 million YouTube views in less than a week and intense media attention, it is safe to say that This is America has reached the enviable status of “cultural phenomenon”. Combining violent imagery with interpretative dance, the video conveys a message that is clear, yet ambiguous, obvious, yet enigmatic. It holds a mirror up to a popular culture that is in crisis and a new black pride movement rebirthing from an utterly toxic womb.
Not unlike today’s social climate, the video is tense, acerbic, and punctuated with acts of senseless violence. Taking place inside an abandoned warehouse the video celebrates – yet also criticizes – black America in a world that feels increasingly like a claustrophobic madhouse.
The music, the lyrics, and the visual imagery of the video all deal in duality. This is America reflects on what is wrong in America today while perpetuating it, denounces senseless violence while normalizing it, and reclaims America while renouncing it.
At the center of this cultural phenomenon is Donald Glover, a multi-talented artist who is best known for his various roles in TV shows such as Community and movies such as the upcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story. Glover’s previous dabblings in the music world – under the stage name Childish Gambino – had generated a mostly lukewarm response from the music world. Many critics felt that his lyrical delivery was unconvincing and that Glover was too “Hollywood” to be taken seriously as a rapper.
However, it is exactly Glover’s Hollywood experience that gives This is America its mesmerizing, yet unsettling quality. The character he plays – a shirtless, heavily bearded, and somewhat unhinged man – is entertaining, yet deeply disturbing. He does all kinds of cool dance moves, he raps all kinds of cool rhymes – but also he kills people. His own people.
This is America dance sequence. Click to enlarge
It is indeed Glover’s acting talents that give the video its attention-grabbing quality. Everything in the video is precisely choreographed, right down to Glover’s facial expressions. For this reason, the viewers quickly understand that there’s a “distance” between Donald Glover and the role he plays in This is America. The emotions portrayed are not natural and genuine, they are theatrical. Glover is playing yet another role. But what role is he actually playing?
Since its release, the video has been subject to endless interpretations. Is Glover playing the role – as many have theorized – of America itself? While the people behind the video refused to spell out what the video’s meaning, one of the clip’s producers, Ibra Ake, told NPR:
“I don’t think we are as cerebral or as calculated as people think. Our goal is to normalize blackness.”
Indeed, the video normalizes some images and concepts. While various commentators ascribed all kinds of meanings to every detail found in the video, they ended up missing the most obvious messages. Indeed, what if the truth was simpler? What if Glover embodied a caricatural version of what he actually is: An entertainer. More precisely, an entertainer who is owned by the powers that be and who is used to hinder and destabilize black America. Let’s look at the video.
Is This America?