It’s not often that a music video manages to successfully synthesize as much that’s happening musically, culturally, and politically as Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” released Saturday, but if everyone involved hadn’t been aiming high, they never would have titled a song “This Is America” to begin with. That’s a great-American-novel sized title, and if you had any doubts about Donald Glover’s genius (Childish Gambino is a stage name he uses for his music career), watching “This Is America” successfully live up to its name should dispel them.
In the video, from frequent Atlanta director Hiro Murai, Glover dances, high-steps, and capers his way through scenes from America’s ongoing national meltdown. At first, Sherrie Silver’s choreography for Glover looks like it will work in a similar way as Ryan Heffington’s choreography for Margaret Qualley in the Kenzo World perfume ad Spike Jonze directed in 2016:
Like Qualley, Glover uses exaggerated facial expressions while building from a standstill to something manic, but in the Kenzo World ad, the music’s beat seems almost to be puppeteering the actress. Glover, in contrast, is clearly in control of what he’s doing—see, e.g.,the hypermasculine flexing around 45 seconds in—which makes the moment when he delicately shoots a masked prisoner in the head all the more abrupt and disturbing. That sudden transition is perfectly mirrored in the music, as the choir and finger-picked guitar that open the track are instantly replaced with a throbbing synthetic bassline. Murai’s camera, too, picks up this transition: During the video’s opening, it dances with Glover, approaching and slowly circling, but when he pulls the gun, it backs up into a wide shot, leading to a sequence where a wild-eyed Glover dances toward the camera, which can’t get away fast enough. The “dance toward a retreating camera” thing is a music video cliché, but Glover, Silver, and Murai make it new and ominous.
On a macro level, too, “This Is America” reinvents its influences. The video’s overall conception clearly owes a debt to OK Go—compare the way Murai’s camera prowls around the warehouse in long takes to “This Too Shall Pass,” for starters—but instead of revealing new components of a Rube Goldberg machine, Murai keeps panning to new tableaus from America’s most recent episodes of violent racial unrest. A church choir is assault-rifled to death, cars burn, school kids film the chaos on their cellphones, and a Los Angeles riots’ worth of abandoned late 1980s and early 1990s cars blink their hazard lights to punctuate the disaster. Meanwhile, Glover whiplashes back and forth between oblivious consumerism—“I’m on Gucci/ I’m so pretty,” he sings, shortly after someone is thrown to their deaths in the background behind him—and actively making things worse. It’s hard to imagine anyone taking a sharper snapshot of the American cultural landscape in 2018 than this one: Everything is in perfect discord.