On May 5, 2018, Donald ‘Childish Gambino’ Glover debuted his new single on the sets of NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Almost simultaneously, he released the single’s music video on YouTube. The single? This is America. The video? An intense visual statement on the United States of Trump, from the rampant mass shootings and gun culture to the racially-motivated police brutality and the increasingly apathetic young American who prefers selfies over self-awareness. Directed by Glover’s long-time collaborator Hiro Murai, who also directs him in FX’s award-winning Atlanta, the song and the video were a result of their combined world-weariness, a reaction to what was happening in the world around them.
Almost immediately after the track came out, the online world started analysing and cross-examining the four-minute long video. When Glover strikes a cartoonish pose while shooting someone in the head, he reminds viewers of Thomas D Rice’s fictional theatre personality from the early 20th century, Jim Crow, probably the earliest instance of blackface in media. When he hands a smoking gun carefully to a child who appears off-screen while his victim’s body is dragged unceremoniously off-screen, he’s talking about how guns have more value in the country than human life. When he unloads the contents of a Kalashnikov into an unsuspecting gospel choir, he is referencing the 2015 Charleston church shooting. And that’s just the first minute of the video.
Nine months later, Glover brought home not one but two Grammys for This is America, winning both Song of the Year and Record of the Year for the same track, making Grammys history in the process. Meanwhile, the music video has racked up almost half a billion views on YouTube, not to mention the hundreds of cover versions and remakes that poured in from across the world. There is This is Nigeria, This is South Africa, This is Iraq, This is Malaysia. There is even a superbly insightful Indian version called This is Hindustan by Gujarati comedy collective The Comedy Factory.
What makes This is America such a compelling music video? Gambino is not the first black artist to create a politically-charged music video about racial tension. Just a few months before This is America was released, hip-hop power couple, Beyonce and Jay-Z, both put out individual videos that took on similar issues. While Queen Bey released Formation that unapologetically celebrated blackness to its very core, Jay Z’s music video for The Story of OJ shared the aesthetic of old Sambo cartoons from the ’30s, in a way highlighting the stereotypical depictions of African-Americans in the media even today. However, the shock-and-awe tactics employed by Gambino and Murai coupled with some excellent cinematic decisions set the video apart from the others.
For all first-time viewers, it was honestly the sheer shift in tone when Gambino fires that first bullet. That’s the moment when everyone sits up. You’re not a passive viewer anymore, you’re involved. From there on, it just keeps getting darker and darker, no pun intended. While Gambino drops truth bombs after truth bombs, combining trap-heavy beats with gospel riffs, the camera doesn’t let up for even a second, doggedly following him around. The background is filled with out-of-focus characters enacting the harsh realities of racial discrimination and egregious violence, characters that you probably only notice on your second or third viewing. The amount of detail that the creative duo have packed into each frame makes it ideal for repeat viewings, with the audience unlocking a new layer on each watch.
It also helps that this is Donald Glover in the video. Glover shot to fame playing the ridiculously apolitical Troy Barnes in the now-cult comedy series Community. Even for people who followed Glover’s earlier foray into music, this was a major shift. Gambino’s earlier tracks like 3001 and Heartbeat dealt with broken relationships and existential angst, and while immensely catchy, did not have the weight that this track did. It makes sense that Glover would make this tonal shift, you could already see him do it with his writing and dramatic skills in Atlanta. It’ll be hard for Glover to top what he did with This is America, but this writer, for one, is very interested to see how he does it. Because he will. This is Donald, after all.
This article first appeared in the January 31, 2019, print edition under the title ‘This is us’. The writer is a filmmaker, writer and stand-up comic based in Mumbai.