It’s rare and only granted to something genuinely masterful but once in a while, this site will deviate from its ethos of supporting the kind of bands that could genuinely use as many platforms as possible to elevate their work to a more widely-accessible world and turn its lens towards a piece from an artist that’s already a bona fide celebrity in the mainstream music world. It hasn’t happened since Run The Jewels’ Lakeith Stanfield-starring “Close Your Eyes (and Count To Fuck)” but late Saturday night Donald Glover donned his soon-to-be-retired Childish Gambino guise and released the earth-shattering music video for “This Is America”.
Directed by Hiro Murai, one of Glover’s most trusted collaborators and his go-to helmer for Childish Gambino clips, the video starts off innocuously enough, featuring not much more than a man picking up a guitar on a chair to sit down and play while Glover begins dancing, while a gorgeous swooping pan shot from the camera conveys a strange jubilance. It’s shot through with some weird energy and staged in a surprisingly grandiose fashion, bringing the work of Murai’s contemporaries Daniels and Nabil to mind. In a mere matter of seconds, the symbolic flourishes begin to start poking through.
Glover struts his way through a series of flashy moves, stopping for an odd pose while the camera pulls back to reveal a man whose head has been bagged sitting on a chair. In that fleeting moment, the entire mode shifts violently, to a genuinely startling effect. It leads to a low-wide two shot (above) that has to be a strong contender for the Shot of the Year in any film-related medium, Glover pulling a gun on the anonymous man and striking a Jim Crow pose before blowing his brains out.
In a second, the music swings from Gospel-tinged Africana to dark trap, with Glover announcing “This is America.” From that point forward, the clip focuses an unfixing gaze on America’s ills, some specific to the black community (the stigma attached to depression hitting especially hard), others a commentary on how those things are processed by America at large. Violence has become reduced to frivolity, suicide constantly takes place on the very fringes of the public’s eye, death’s white horse is coursing through an increasingly violent, troubled world and the self-appointed protagonists of unspeakable cruelty can’t evade their own actions.
All of this and more is taken on in “This Is America” which somehow intertwines those incredibly significant topics with micro-commentaries on the state of rap, touching on everything from Chance’s meticulously crafted “good man of God” persona to background lyrical riffs and allusions to rappers like Kodak Black (all while enlisting a stacked feature roster comprised of Young Thug, 21 Savage, BlocBoy JB, Rae Sremmurd’s Slim Jxmmi, and Migos’ Quavo, then pointedly reducing their contributions).
At every single turn, some wildly unpredictable, some dangled like bait (the introduction of the clip’s youngest cast members evoking the exact same dread that the opening episode of The Wire’s fourth season inspired) of “This Is America” there is fear, chaos, and odd bursts of joy, unaffected, desensitized, and painfully reminiscent of what modern society has become. There’s a war on religion, religion’s being co-opted for self-serving, people die, and still, our most pressing concern is keeping up with the latest dance move.
Not just a cold, unfeeling look at the concept of minstrelism, “This Is America” lights a match and shines a shred of light on everything before letting it bloom into a fully fledged spotlight. Murai’s direction and immaculate staging driving home a non-stop arsenal of memorable moments that are uncomfortable to consider and dissect. It’s masterful work that ranks among Glover and Murai’s finest work together, which is especially notable considering they’re both in the midst of producing some of the most exceptional installments of television’s Golden Era with their work on FX’s Atlanta.
Here, they lay the weight of America’s burdens on the table, twisting them into an impressionistic splatter paint canvas that cuts nerve after nerve with deadly precision. While some of Childish Gambino’s earliest work remains both inconsistent and problematic, it’s good to see Glover growing as a thinker, a musician, and an activist. He’s seemingly acknowledged his own complicity with “This Is America” and found a way to condemn not just that past, but that entire path that’s been walked and continues to be walked by so many.
Glover and Murai also, for the first time, have finally figured out how to effectively translate Glover’s ridiculously clever sensibilities to the visual realm. Every shot in “This Is America” is nuanced and offers up a ridiculous amount of elements to dissect, some with multiple meanings. The layering in the clip is absolutely staggering and suggests that Childish Gambino, after an erratic run, has found a voice in its twilight days. If this is how the project goes out, it’ll have been more than worth the journey.
Watch “This Is America” below.