Last weekend, Saturday Night Live took a break from its increasingly toothless “satire” of Donald Trump to give Donald Glover a platform from which to create a real cultural moment.
Glover was hosting the show to promote the upcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story, in which he plays a young Lando Calrissian. And as Childish Gambino, he was also the musical guest, performing two new songs from his next (and last) album.
During the broadcast, Glover released a video online for the second song, “This Is America”.
As evidenced by the explosion of Twitter commentary, there is a lot going on in this confronting video, but it principally appears to be a comment on the lack of accountability and absence of political will to address rampant gun violence in America in any meaningful way.
In the video, Glover dances gleefully (with a tinge of minstrelsy, some have suggested) in the foreground while violence of one kind or another erupts around him — images that evoke police brutality, protests and riots.
In between his moves, Glover shoots a black man in the back of the head and in an apparent reference to the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, guns down a gospel choir. Not only are there no repercussions to this violence, but the gun Glover uses is placed gently into a red cloth, treated with far more care than the human lives just lost.
And in the lines “This is a celly / That is a tool…”, there also appears to be a reference to the shooting of Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old unarmed black man who was gunned down by police in his own backyard. He was suspected of breaking car windows nearby and the officers thought he had a gun or a “tool bar”, which turned out to be a cell phone.
The video is brutal and difficult to watch, especially because of the violence’s juxtaposition with the dancing, some of which involves school children following along to the latest viral dance craze like the South African Gwara Gwara. So while society consumes what it cherishes most about black culture — party hip-hop — black men comply, meeting those expectations and taking the money. But in reality, they’re dying — a fact that we, intentionally or not, refuse to reckon with as we continue to dance.
Directed by Hiro Murai, who’s helmed several Childish Gambino videos and Atlanta episodes, this video, while certainly more pointed and made with forceful purpose, didn’t come out of nowhere.
The intersection of the hip-hop business and gun violence in everyday life is frequently front and centre in Glover’s show, Atlanta, soon wrapping up its second season.
In the very first scene of the first season, a broken side-view mirror leads all interested parties to brandish their weapons. As the camera floats above the city, we hear a gunshot but we don’t know what happens. It’s just a part of life for Earn (Glover), his cousin Alfred, aka the rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), and his friend Darius (Lakeith Stanfield).
In the first season finale, an apparently unarmed man suspected of selling drugs and weapons is gunned down by the police as he’s running away. Like a lot of the things that happen on the show, it’s not climactic in that it’s not necessarily connected to the general story or characters we care about, but it’s still carries an emotional weight. And, in typical Atlanta fashion, that heaviness is undercut with a joke — the man is wearing Earn’s jacket and he wants to know if there’s anything in the pockets.
Even in comic situations, the casual presence of a gun brings a tension and discomfort that lets you know you might not be laughing for long. In the first episode of the second season (which opens with the armed robbery of a fast food joint), Earn’s alligator-owning uncle (Katt Williams) gives him a gold-plated gun to hold, and we just know that gun is going to come back to haunt Earn and all of us at some point.
The best example of how the threat of gun violence shrouds an extremely easy-to-watch comedy comes in the episode “Woods”. Walking home, Paper Boi encounters a few fans. They’re very complimentary at first and then there’s a beat. A beat when we all know something terrible is about to happen — they pull a gun on him. He grabs the gun and tries to wrestle it away while being hit repeatedly. The violence follows what would have been an average star-fan interaction and makes you sweat with how visceral it is. It’s not that the show is filled with crazy, random violence like a Tarantino movie. The gun violence is a casual part of Atlanta’s reality, sewn in the fabric of everyday life.
There have been TV shows and music videos about violence and/or hip-hop before. But with Atlanta and “This Is America”, Donald Glover is entertaining and challenging us while throwing a broad variety of cultural references our way — and we don’t necessarily know what to make of them (see the “Teddy Perkins” episode). But they’re not just for the sake of recognition. Glover wants us to think about what we value in culture and how we consume it. And he wants us to face the consequences for those choices.
He’s doing this while effectively straddling two worlds — some might say one white and one black, but I’m not white or black and I like them both, so who knows.
He performs a charming monologue to help promote a huge movie on SNL…
— Saturday Night Live - SNL (@nbcsnl) May 6, 2018
…and he makes apparent visual Jim Crow references in a hip-hop video…
What will he do next?
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Atlanta is streaming now at SBS On Demand: