Donald Glover, AKA Childish Gambino, is having a damn fine month of May so far. On Saturday, the multi-hyphenate talent hosted Saturday Night Live to raucous approval and managed to lead the rare perfect sketch. His hit FX series Atlanta is nearing the end of its excellent second season, and later this month, Glover will appear in Disney (DIS) and Lucasfilm’s summer blockbuster Solo: A Star Wars Story as the younger version of Lando Calrissian.
Life is good for the 34-year-old writer, actor, director, singer, rapper, dancer, comedian.
But despite his impressive list of recent accolades, nothing Glover does this month will top the sheer force of impact that is This Is America, his stunning new music video directed trenchantly by Atlanta veteran Hiro Murai.
I don’t know about you, but my Twitter feed has been positively overcome by this culturally penetrating think piece of theirs. I’ve watched the video 11 times and listened to the song on repeat since Sunday. It’s burrowed into my brain like it hired Leonardo DiCaprio to incept me.
The imagery of This is America is chaotic and mesmerizing, jarring in its juxtaposition of entertainment and violence and beautiful in its materialistic message. One of the first things eagle-eyed Twitter users noticed and that immediately drew me in is the riff on iconic pop culture visuals and motifs that This Is America evokes, such as Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 masterpiece A Clockwork Orange.
Kubrick wasn’t shy about his Machiavellian view of humanity’s true nature. A Clockwork Orange is practically a thesis statement on why man is inherently evil and why we will always naturally drift towards a violent degradation of society. Civilized living is an elabrote ruse, Malcolm McDowell’s Alex DeLarge insits.
Similarly, Glover and Murai’s story sees the rapper happily dancing through brutal violence as he executes a black hostage and guns down a black church choir as riots erupt in the background. The reminder here that “this is America” is a harsh truth, which all good counsel is built upon.
We are a nation of violence, particularly against minorities.
Other mirror-imaging that Twitter pointed out provides further text and subtext to Glover’s message, such as this parallel to Quentin Tarantino‘s Django Unchained.
In the latter scene, Jamie Foxx’s titular character is literally throwing off the chains of slavery and walking into freedom in another film depicting the violence rooted in America’s history. Both are pushing forward a very specific point of view that paints this country’s past and present in a debilitating light.
We are not the pure saviors we’ve always fancied ourselves, which was, ironically, one of the themes in November’s Thor: Ragnarok.
Yet that message and point of view are constantly blocked out by pop culture and other mass entertainment mediums that arguably distract us from the harsh truth. It’s a bit hypocritical of me to agree when my living comes from covering the entertainment industry, but there it is: I spent more time decoding Avengers: Infinity War trailers than I did reading about the Parkland shooting survivors. It’s ugly but it’s true.
That idea is captured succinctly in one perfect image in the music video, which I again have to credit Twitter for pointing out to me.
That is presumably a personification of death riding the pale white horse as police and chaos follow closely behind. But it’s in the background going unnoticed (at least by me) as the circle of dancing (i.e. pop culture entertainment) takes center stage in our public consciousness.
Those are some next level visual metaphors right there.
“And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him,” chapter 6 of the Book of Revelation reads. “And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.”
Glover seems to be saying with this image that we’re headed for a bleak future that is being ignored by the masses as we continue to consume superficial entertainment, perhaps fastening our own decline. I would call him out for making this blanket statement as an entertainer himself, but much of his music and a good portion of Atlanta is devoted to ideas that revolve around this.
He’s talking the talk and walking the walk.
Embracing controversy and hanging it all out there for the world to see seems to be working for the entertainment world at the moment, as it generates valuable conversations about mass ideologies and historical and cultural skeletons in closets. These conversations lead to an exchange of ideas and a greater understanding between differing peoples, which may be Glover’s intention all along.
So, by all means, let’s please keep talking about This Is America.