Childish Gambino’s “This is America” perfectly captures our dystopic times

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May 7, 2018

Donald Glover is in the middle of a pretty big year: the second season of his fantastic FX series Atlanta is about to wrap up, he just pulled double-duty hosting and performing on SNL this past weekend, and later this month he’s starring in some quiet, unknown indie film about some dude named Han Solo.

Outside of the cultural cornucopia that Glover’s been churning out for us to chew on, there’s not many bright spots in the world. In fact, things are, uh, pretty fucking bad. Not only does Donald Glover seem to know how bad everything is, though, his new video under the Gambino moniker, “This is America,” shows that he is also capable of expertly articulating a roadmap through the depths of the most hellish corners of our world.

Here’s how Glover, along with Atlanta director Hiro Murai, collaborated to offer a perfect snapshot of our dystopia with their new video.

The dancing

The primary through-line of this video involves Glover dancing in a manic, eager-to-please fashion while total chaos, from guns to police brutality, erupts behind him juuust out of frame and focus. Although as a metaphor for how we as consumers of culture allow the media we surround ourselves with to distract us from the ills and terrors of culture at large it can be seen as obvious and crude, it still fits as the issues that Glover is tackling— from racialized violence to gun control—are pretty obvious and crude, also.

The guns

Speaking of those guns, the video features some pretty jarring violence at the hands of firearms throughout its runtime, most prominently when Gambino shoots a guitar player in the head with a handgun, or the even more skin-crawling instance of him bursting into a room and massacring an entire gospel choir mid-chorus with a machine gun.

We all know guns equal bad, and this video’s portrayal of the horror these weapons can yield in a such an unfetishized light does a great job of proving this, but there’s also something worth noting based in these deaths happening to musicians showing us their craft; specifically, it touches on how as a culture, we may have reached a point where we at large can celebrate (and commodify) art made by black artists, but in the presence of guns and racism, we still treat the bodies of the creators as disposable. This point is further driven home by the contrast in Gambino nonchalantly shooting the guitar player, only for his body to be carelessly dragged away while the weapon is gently collected in a silk handkerchief

The warehouse

Despite the large scale of the chaos included in this video, from the dancing to the shooting, it all occurs within the confines of a mostly-empty warehouse. Though for the majority of the runtime this directorial choice could be seen merely as a way to keep the shooting cost down, the artistic decision gains a bit more weight during the song’s outro, crooned by Young Thug, which he begins by declaring “You just a black man in this world/You just a barcode.”

This line cements the decision to confine everything to this warehouse to be another way for Glover to point toward the idea that black culture—from its art to the social issues —is largely seen as being a collection of commodified objects, to be bought and sold, rather than anything real.

The horse

Some days things are so bad that it truly can feel like the world is ending – but don’t feel alone, it seems as if Childish Gambino agrees with you. Snuck into the back of the frame during one of Glover’s dance showcases is a pale horse ridden by a hooded figure – which, for all you Bible-heads out there, is otherwise known as “Death”, the fourth and final Horseman of the Apocalypse and the signal that the end truly has arrived.

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