Donald Glover was warm and fuzzy throughout his hosting duties on Saturday Night Livethis past weekend. In his musical alter ego, Childish Gambino, he premiered two new songs. But a separate video for one of the songs, “This Is America,” was released just as Glover was on TV Saturday evening, and it is already both a huge success and a controversial film statement, since it includes two quick but brutal scenes of bloody killing as well as lyrics about racial inequality. This striking short film is like an entire season of Glover’s FX show Atlanta compressed into a four-minute video.
Directed by regular Atlanta director Hiro Murai, “This Is America” features Glover-as-Gambino stripped to the waist, singing and dancing to a lean funk melody. (Glover does the “shoot dance” a heck of a lot better than Drake does it in the latter’s “Look Alive” video with BlockBoy JB.) The first shock in the video comes when the smiling, dancing Gambino slips up behind an African-American man with a hood over his head; Gambino pulls out a gun and shoots him in the head, execution-style. The happy dancing resumes, until, a few seconds later, Gambino grabs an automatic rifle and mows down an entire church choir that has been singing the song’s refrain. Again, the cheerfulness is cranked back up — the music has an energetic lilt. But at the end of the video, things become literally dark — in the gloom and shadows, we can make out the form of a Gambino who is now terrified, running as fast as he can, away from a crowd of mostly white men chasing him.
If you think Gambino isn’t wearing a shirt just because he wanted to show off his trim frame, you’re missing the point. Glover wants to remind us that violence is committed against black bodies like his with some regularity and with no heed to whether the body in question is that of a celebrity or an ordinary citizen. This is also the implication buried in the lyrics, which include the phrase, “Police be trippin’ now” and which speaks of “guns in my area.” The video picks up on themes from the current season of Atlanta, whose so-called “Robbin’ Season” concludes later this week on FX. Atlanta has been exploring violent acts committed upon some key characters including the rapper character Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry). Similarly, the “This Is America” video insists that no black person, even one working prominently in entertainment, is safe from violence against African-Americans generally — and that in some awful, ironic ways, entertainment and violence are inextricably linked.
“This Is America” is first-rate Childish Gambino music: melodic hiphop heavily influenced by Prince’s brand of funk-pop. The crisp beat and frequently cheery melody lines form a sharp contrast to the pointed lyrics. In precisely the same way, the visuals of the video contrast happy entertainment with nightmarish violence and fear.
Arriving as it does a week after another musician-star, Kanye West, stirred up much pop-culture debate, Glover’s new song and video are going to provoke lots of discussion. (I predict Fox News is going to burst a collective blood vessel over this video on all of its primetime shows this week: Here’s looking at you, Laura Ingraham.) Also: This video is really going to make any publicity Glover does for Solo: A Star Wars Story a series of very interesting interviews.