There is a wave of praise for Donald Glover’s recent work “This is America”, and it is certainly more than well-deserving. With the release of the TV series Atlanta in 2016, Donald Glover has since been at the forefront of the black community in the US. His apothegmatic voice in the production arches over the long history of the black folks who had to bargain physical safety for a slice of the pie. The same voice certainly does linger in the recent music video, but in a style much less subtle and not as consciously immersed beneath a storyline.
“Get your money, black man”, a line from the music video, is somewhat of a sage advice that has been passed through generations and generations. However, Donald Glover manages to convey how frail and ironic that message is and how the jig is up. The music itself is less of a song than a montage of tunes that flow and stop in correspondence with the scene’s expositions. The video features Glover himself intermittently bugging his eyes and freezing his form or tightrope dancing with a contorted body composure — the set of routines are all somewhat confusing and disturbing at a more metaphysical level. And this sure is an intended effect, complemented by the abrupt violence that starts with a shooting of a man’s head.
Throughout the clip, Glover and a group of students in school uniform perform dances derived from viral videos in social media, topped with a overlay of minstrelsy that is stereotypical of the African American community. All the while they are dancing, there is a frenzy of activities happening in the background. With broken-down cars, mobs of people rushing to one side with baseball bats, and occasional cop chases, it makes it almost impossible to retract our attention from the fazed-out distance. Glover thus mocks the American society that turns its focus to entertainment over the latent conflicts that are more deserving of our attention.
America is a place where black people are gunned down and yet where those same people dance and sing to distract themselves from the carnage. At large, America is where violence and entertainment happen simultaneously, and the question of which one we turn our heads to is a matter of framing.
In the final scene, Glover is manically running down a dark hallway, with a group of people behind his back tailing right after him. With harrowing clarity, the last note bleeps. What is the message? “This is America” runs through the mind of Glover — a microcosm of the community as a whole — that works to accept the pain society has tolled upon him. The final run is the undeniable fact that it is impossible to run away from that pain in the end. All the while he worked to play the game society has laid out, he is turned against with no mercy or room to breathe. The last harrowing note is that of the daunting truth that he tells us to be vigilant about.