Is This Really America, Donald Glover?
Donald Glover recently released a new single entitled "This is America." While it is easy to focus on Glover dancing in the middle of the shot, try to instead to look in the background where the true action takes place. The message here is provocative, but judging by the lyrics, the song is secondary to the visuals; the presentation of which is nothing short of visual poetry.
This video has stirred much debate over the artist's meaning. Many assert that Glover’s video is an appeal to common sense gun regulations. Gun control is an issue of great importance and attempting to frame it through Glover’s video would not do the debate justice. What is far more fascinating than his commentary on gun control is the stance in which he takes on what he perceives to be a decay in American morality.
Within the first few seconds of the video we see Glover dancing through peaceful introspection while feeling the music, turning into a caricature of himself, then shifting through concern, nervousness, and aggravation; culminating with angry machismo as he thrusts out his chest mimicking a Jim Crow era pose, pulls a handgun, and executes the guitarist. The time it takes to get into position, the windup, the exaggerated pose, all leads the viewer to believe it is deliberate, structured, and coordinated. The multiple emotional states or characters seen in the sequence resurface again throughout the entirety of the video. The viewer might notice that when he smiles it is far from genuine glee, it is manic, the forced smile of a wannabe star. The characters Glover depicts continually cycle, the dancing fool striving to just gain some sort of societal recognition, the angered young ruffian, the introspective young man who inevitably cycles back into the others.
Glover throughout the video acts as both murderer and entertainer as he dances in an incongruous fashion, shoots both a bound black man and a church choir, then proceeds to dance again. Glover switches between dancing by himself, dancing with school children, flailing, and multiple cartoonish facial expressions. We, as the audience, cannot keep our eyes off of this magnetic figure that jumps between these two extremes, which is exactly the point that is trying to be made. These dramatic shifts in attitude and action highlight how both national tragedies and celebrities are treated as pure spectacle in this age of social media and instant news.
Although most of the lyrics point at the topic of gun control (“Yeah this is America/ Guns in my area/ I got a strap/ I gotta carry ‘em”), Glover seems to suggest throughout the video that a moral ambivalence has spread over America. We as a culture mourn for a time over the death of American citizens then proceed to become infatuated with the next viral sensation. The latest mass murder is just as trendy as the latest dance.
Towards the end of the video we see this clearly, as the camera pans from Glover up to a group of children, sitting on a platform, who are staring blankly at their phones as the world around them falls apart. Cars are on fire, a man commits suicide, and mass hysteria settles in as men and women frantically run every which way, all while a man in a black cloak rides a white horse through this chaos bringing with him death both morally and physically. But the children on their phones miss all of this, since their attention, much like ours, has shifted back to Glover and his carticurized antics.
Those children, perched above the problems of the world and too numb to respond, are the casual viewers who stumble across the video on any of the numerous social media sites. They are those who watch it, either complain or praise it, then move on to watch the video of a fluffy dog who wakes up his master with a muffled bark. We as self-governing individuals are called to respond to tragedy with empathy and action while casting aside artificial distractions which seek to corrupt our moral code. Yet we instead treat the tragic and the artificial just the same.
Glover’s insight into the corruption of the American character is both compelling and tragically true. There is a great necessity to rediscover what we have lost in this age of greater technology and communication, one thing being the ability to act against evil.
While Glover does not goes so far as to offer suggestions about what should be done to realign our moral compass, "This is America" does take that first step to finding a solution: recognizing there is a problem. In this age of media misguidance, celebrities and tragedies are merely American spectacle. One day, the public can care so deeply about a tragedy and then the next, allow it to be forgotten just like the latest trend.