Henderson: ‘This is America’ One of Boldest Statements on Race, Inequality in Recent Memory



Since the release of Childish Gambino’s new music video for “This is America,” the images it invokes have stuck in Detroit Today host Stephen Henderson’s mind. Henderson writes:

When’s the last time you remember a music video - a single stretch of a few minutes of film set to song - that transfixed a large segment of America? Something you watch over and over, trying to decipher all the messages from lyric and image, trying to find what it was about the artist, and the work, that captures our collective attention and conversation in a way that creates a cultural moment? Think of videos like Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, or Kurt Cobain leading Nirvana through ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’

This week, Childish Gambino, which is the performance name that actor/comedian/television and movie star Donald Glover iterates, released ‘This is America’ during a performance on Saturday Night Live. In the video, Glover presents a powerful and dizzying stream of images that represent the boldest statements on race and inequality that I’ve seen recently in pop culture.

Glover is shirtless throughout the video, and dancing enthusiastically with a group of five others who are dressed as teens in school uniforms. But their movements – mostly precise iterations of popular dances – are a purposeful distraction from what’s going on in the background, which alternates between chaos and rioting, and symbolic representations of foreboding and doom.

In the video, Glover also executes a musician with a handgun, and a church choir with an assault weapon – and each time, the gun he uses is handled with far more care and respect than his victims. The themes in the video call on many of the struggles that face African-Americans today – violence, fear of the police, appropriation of popular black culture as a distraction – but they are melded into stark criticisms of America more generally.

It is a strong and stunning condemnation of our collective sense of confusion and indifference to the things that happen around us, and in some cases a rather crafty look at the ways in which our sense of self today, as Americans and as black Americans, is so confounded by our history. When Glover executes the musician, for instance, he pulls the trigger as he is posing in a similar stance to an historical cartoon drawing of Jim Crow, which was originally a racist stereotype but later became the name of the U.S. policy of segregation.

At another point in the video, he refers to cell phones as a tool, while blindfolded figures in the background point their phones at the chaos unfolding around them. They don’t want to see what they are filming, and presumably broadcasting to others. This is America, he says over and over, unleashing layered indictments of the very idea of our nation as freedom- or equality-loving, displaying all the ways in which hypocrisy swallows the dream of the nation’s founding, as well as its 242 years of existence.

This is America.”

Courtesy of Emily Dagger/NPR

Stephen Henderson (right) with Panama Jackson

Dream Hampton, a filmmaker, writer, community activist, and native Detroiter, Panama Jackson, co-founder and senior editor of the website Very Smart Brothas, and David Dennis, adjunct professor of journalism at Morehouse College and writer for Interactive One, speak with Stephen Henderson on Detroit Today about the new Childish Gambino video and its contribution to the pop culture canon. 

Click on the audio player above for the full conversation. 

Image credit: Childish Gambino/ Vevo

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Detroit Today

Dynamic and diverse voices. News, politics, community and the issues that define our region. Hosted by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Stephen Henderson, Detroit Today brings you fresh and perceptive views weekdays at 9 am and 7 pm.


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