Blink just once while watching "This Is America," the now-viral music video from Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover), and you're bound to miss an eyeful of symbols and cultural references that have helped the video garner more than 111 million views and spawned countless video essays, think pieces, and social media debates dissecting even the most minute details in the four-minute film.
The video is directed by Glover's frequent Atlanta collaborator Hiro Murai, and nearly every aspect of the video — which follows Gambino portraying "America" as he commits heinous acts of gun violence in between dance breaks alongside young people — has been examined. But the beauty of the assessments and the piece itself is that while many of the references can't be denied, even more are up for debate and purely a matter of opinion.
The video is clearly an examination of how society, America to be specific, views, treats, and mistreats African-Americans in a multitude of ways. But at its heart, it forces the viewer to reflect on how we as a society are failing the young people who are truly counting on us.
The first time we see a young person in the video is after Childish Gambino shoots a seated man in the back of the head. Childish hands the pistol to a young boy dressed in a school uniform who carefully wraps the gun in a red cloth while two more young men drag the lifeless body away. Seconds later, Gambino is joined by four young students as they all start performing a series of popular dances from both Africa and black America, including South Africa's Gwara Gwara and BlocBoy JB's shoot dance.
The dancing has at least two meanings. Most obviously it's a distraction, representing how we can miss what's truly happening in the world around us when our attention is elsewhere, but the video's choreographer Sherrie Silver told Pigeons & Plane that the children and dancing should also represent positivity during dark times.
"There are a lot of dark themes in it, so they wanted us to be the light of the video," Sherrie said about working on the video. "You know how kids are innocent and kind of unaware of what's going on? We were there to smile and bring joy to everyone watching it, because the background is bringing so much darkness and reality."
"Even though they are joyful and carefree, the dangers of the real world, which are shown as the police and civil unrest surround them, is always a looming threat."
As Gambino and the school kids hit the Gwara Gwara to the lyrics "Yeah, yeah, I'm so cold like, yeah / I'm so dope like, yeah / We gon' blow like yeah," more uniformed kids can be seen in the background standing on a car and "making it rain" while shooting what looks like money out of a red gun as chaos breaks out behind them. The children represent an innocence and purity that many lose too early due to both witnessing and experiencing violence. Even though they are joyful and carefree, the dangers of the real world, which are shown as the police and civil unrest surround them, is always a looming threat.
In one of the most disturbing scenes, Gambino enters a room where a spirited black choir is singing, and dances along with them before shooting them with a machine gun. The imagery is heartbreaking and instantly brings to mind the 2015 Charleston Church shooting in which a young white supremacist took the lives of nine African-Americans during a Bible study. Just like the first shooting in the video, a schoolboy takes the gun immediately after Gambino shoots the choir while chaos ensues and Gambino is ignored.
As America, Gambino continues to dance with the children in the middle of a riot, all oblivious to the danger that is closing in on them, but as the camera pans toward the ceiling, there are more children observing and recording the destruction on mobile phones as Gambino raps, "This a celly/ That's a tool." Mobiles and social media have been instrumental in documenting violence and unfairness against the black community at the hands of authorities, and this moment in the video serves to remind us all that our children are always watching, even when they may be too young to fully understand what is happening both to them and the world around them.
As a country, America should prioritise protecting the youth from gun violence. It's what the young survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, are leading the charge for by standing up to politicians and demanding gun reform. But in Childish Gambino's America, guns are more protected than the bodies that are harmed by them, and they are placed directly into the hands of young people instead of being kept away from them.
In "This Is America," it is the children who retrieve the guns after the shootings, but it's not until Childish Gambino raises his imaginary gun near them that they understand that they are also in danger. They flee for their lives, leaving Gambino/America alone before he lights and smokes a joint, performs one last dance break atop old, abandoned cars as SZA looks on, and is ultimately chased down a dark hallway.
There is no debating that the video is meant to serve as a commentary on the injustice black Americans have faced in America for centuries (and continue to face on a daily basis), but it's the innocence of the children that serves as a source of hope during an unsettling time. It is the children who bring the light and joy to America, but in the end, even they are at risk of being America's next victim.