Donald Glover’s This is America video is already being hailed as the video of the year, for its unflinching look at what America is today and always has been.
The four-minute clip is chock-a-block with symbolism, trawling through the country’s relationship with race, police brutality, gun violence and their interlinking relationships with each other. Glover (also known as Childish Gambino) remains at the centre of this chaotic imagining of the country housed in a large warehouse, flitting between viral dance crazes and murders as easily as his nation does.
It begins with Glover dancing alone, before shooting a man who had just been playing the guitar (apparently intended to resemble Trayvon Martin’s father). Immediately after, another man takes Glover's gun away, using a soft red cloth while the body is dragged away, a nod to the primary position guns have over black lives.
Later on in the video, an all-black choir is joined by Glover who dances alongside them before shooting them dead. It was intended to reference the 2015 Charleston church shooting, in which nine black parishioners were shot and killed during Bible study. The video is layered and complex, and has amassed over 48 million views in just a few days, as well as an even larger amount of differing interpretations of the work. It has been hailed as “genius” by Erykah Badu, and garnered praise from the likes of Adele and Bruno Mars. But others have been more critical of its approach, abhorring the recreation of violence against black people. If its occurrence is as everyday as the video suggests, then what is radical about simply reproducing what we already know and see?
“I'm not sure what is liberatory about reenacting the shootings of black people,” weighed in Professor Blair LM Kelley, on Twitter. “I really wonder if, at this point, shooting black people is still shocking to anyone.”
Artists change and grow, as does their work, and Glover may well have. It would be interesting to hear from Glover himself, whether this is the case
Another criticism has also been the removal of white people from violence perpetrated by white people against black people. Glover depicting himself as committing these crimes, it has been argued, simply neuters the racialised element of the violence taking place. Of course, it also appears that Glover is attempting to comment on black America’s complicity in the violence that occurs, which may be why he chose to take centre stage. But a piece written by K Austin Collins also critiques this notion:
“I’m wary of any claim that ‘We’ are distracted from black violence,” he writes in Vanity Fair, “because who’s ‘we’, really? Every other day of the week, America’s complaint is that the blacks doth protest too much.”
Glover’s work often provides a searing social commentary on black life in America. It’s been a big week for the musician/actor/comedian/writer/director – his acclaimed comedy-drama, Atlanta, has just been picked up by the BBC and is considered one of the best series of our generation (it’s released in the UK on Sunday).
But it, too, isn’t without issue. Glover has long been accused of having problematic views on women, especially black women, as illustrated by a recent scene in the show that depicted a black woman as a neck-rolling, aggressive stereotype straight out of a 90’s comedy that didn’t age particularly well. She was aggrieved to see a white woman with a black man (and very vocal about it). A great deal of the reluctance to hail him the second coming of “old Kanye” comes from this and other problematic works, which include several fetishing comments about Asian women, a claim that once being called the N-word by an Armenian girl made him have an intense orgasm and a widely criticised comedy-sketch video about men raping each other called “Bro Rape”. In 2011, he doubled down in an interview for The Guardian, saying: “I think it’s odd that you can’t joke about rape, when people joke about murder all the time. A lot more people are dying than getting raped. I think it’s a comedian’s job to make everything funny. Nothing is off-limits.”
For many who appreciate his work and are at times disappointed by it, it very much continues to be the curious case of Childish Gambino. Artists change and grow, as does their work, and Glover may well have. It would be interesting to hear from Glover himself, whether this is the case.