Childish Gambino's "This Is America" broken down
It's been a busy few days for American actor and musician Donald Glover, or as he is better known, Childish Gambino. The 34 year-old juggled a hosting role on Saturday Night Live just last weekend, and also dropped the performance-art piece for his latest single, "This Is America", choreographed by Sherrie Silver, and directed by Hiro Murai.
The video, which garnered over 10 million views in just 24 hours, is a political commentary on the state of America in 2018, featuring a handful of subliminal messages that target the nation's racism and gun laws.
Here's a step-by-step breakdown of the video, highlighting the most important shots and the meanings behind them:
Chanelling Jim Crow
The video's first real statement comes after just 50 seconds, when Glover charismatically pulls out a gun and shoots musician Calvin The Second, who appears here as a masked hostage. In this shot, Glover appears to channel the racially stereotypical movements of the "Jump Jim Crow" dance, originally performed in 1928 by Thomas "Daddy" Rice; a white American performer who pioneered the controversial "blackface" movement, and considered the most popular minstrel show entertainer of all time.
The song and dance is meant to impersonate the disabled African slave, Jim Crow, who was created by Rice as part of a theatre production, subsequently reflecting the ideas of African-American culture held by Caucasians at the time of its creation.
Handle with care
After both instances where Glover brandishes a weapon, the singer proceeds to carefully place his weapon into a red cloth, suggesting a deliberate emphasis has been placed upon the safety of the firearm, and not on human life; a reflection of the public opinion on America's current gun laws, which have resulted in 1800 deaths and over 3000 injuries this year alone.
Distracted by dance
Choreographed by African dance teacher, Sherrie Silver, the dancing scenes in the video serve to distract from the chaos that is unfolding in the background. Firstly, Glover and his following channel various dance moves, including the "Memphis Turnup Dance", dubbed the "Shoot", as well as the South African "Shoki" and "Gwara Gwara". These all appear as a commentary to how easily viral trends can offer a respite to the real world problems happening all around us.
Additionally, they also represent another Caucasian interpretation of black culture in America, seemingly stripped of any legitimacy within society and seen as nothing other than a medium for entertainment; the animated expressions from Glover and the school kids behind him reinforce this notion.
This particular shot appears to reference both the Charleston massacre in 2015 and the Sutherland Springs shooting last year, which collectively claimed the lives of 35 churchgoers. In both instances, mental health became an overarching theme for the motivation of the perpetrators, providing the perfect scapegoat to protect America's gun laws.
The shot of the men filming the chaos unfolding below is particularly poignant. Firstly, Glover uses the line: "This a celly / That's a tool", which is a reference to the shooting of Stephon Clark in March this year, who was holding a cell phone that Police believed to be a weapon. This line can also be a reference to how instrumental mobile phones have been in broadcasting police brutality and institutional racism.
Sza's cameo and the stationary vehicles
American singer-songwriter, Sza, makes a cameo appearance towards the end of the video, possibly hinting towards a future collaboration with Glover. Fans were also quick to draw similarities between Sza's hairstyle and the crown on the statue of Liberty. An Instagram post from the R&B artist soon confirmed those rumours to be true, as she captioned the post "Liberty.".
Another interesting aspect of this shot are the stationary vehicles that both Glover and Sza are on top of. It has been suggested that these are in reference to the black men routinely killed during police traffic stops, most notably the case of Philandro Castile who was shot dead in 2016. Others were quick to notice that some cars had their driver-side doors open and hazards on, which reinforced the reference to traffic-stop killings.
"The Sunken Place"
Last, but certainly not least, the final scene in this masterpiece seems to pay homage to Jordan Peele's 2017 thriller, Get Out, which tells the story of a black man at the centre of a racial scare when he mistakes the kindness of his white girlfriend's family as genuine affection. Following a series of strange encounters, Chris Washington, played by Daniel Kaluuya, discovers a disturbing truth about the racial attitudes of his girlfriend's family. In fact, Kaluuya introduced Glover's performance for "This Is America" on Saturday Night Live.
One of the film's key scenes shows the mother of Washington's girlfriend hypnotising him, drawing him closer and closer to "the sunken place", which is quoted as: "[the] fugue state Chris and other unfortunate black people fall into once they’re in the clutches of a rich, white, and – at least on first impressions – apparently liberal family, the Armitages".
In the video for "This Is America", a similar shot of "the sunken place" appears as Glover moves from the warehouse of abandoned cars, to a dark corridor where he can be seen running from a group of white individuals. Peele commented on "the sunken place" as an area of marginalisation, where "no matter how hard we scream, the system silences us".
Watch the full video below: