I recently got a copy of the video game Far Cry 5 and I don’t think I can finish playing this thing.
Far Cry 5 is not dystopian or fantasy or set in a far-flung future. While most people playing the game find the experience merely entertaining, it just frightens me. The game accomplishes this, not because it is horror, but because it is not. The premise is that you play a deputy trapped in a rural Montana county overrun by religious zealots who want to start an apocalyptic holy war. The game – if you can call it entertainment at all – is based firmly in the tenor of our times, and its true terror lies in expertly capturing the zeitgeist of the Trump era. It was not the intent of Ubisoft to make a horror game, but in a time when school shootings are right-corrected by adding guns to classrooms while our brightest political minds spend the bulk of every day trying to figure out how to convince the dimmest political minds of our society to keep them employed, the parallels are unavoidable. I’m scared to turn on the radio after having played an hour of Far Cry 5 because I’m worried an announcer will come on and tell me America has been wrenched once again into the throes of civil war. It is a decidedly American game in its conception and goal: take back “your” land with as many guns as possible and make America great again. I’ve sunk about 30 hours into it and I’m ready to buy a red hat. The game makes me hate myself.
So imagine the cognitive dissonance I experienced after playing an hour of what I’ve since dubbed “Alt-Right Virtual Reality 5” and then watching the new Childish Gambino music video, “This is America”.
In one day, “This is America” has created the volume (if not the quality) of dialogue that people claim to want around important issues when we’re not being “distracted” by other developments, so it is hysterically subversive that a video (primarily) chastising society for allowing itself to be distracted from all-too common violence, state sanctioned abuse, and aggressive anti-blackness should make social media feel like watching a video game of the Civil War, except that instead of muskets the players are fighting with bad debates. The moment is not generating the kind of dialogue we need yet. Much of the dissection consists of day-one Gambino stans staking flags on a King of the Hill mound no one is attempting to take arguing with people who think Donald Glover is either a genius or unworthy of being called one if he’s not going to apologize for being “problematic” in the past (which I’m sure was a surprise to him months after having shot the video). Too bad; “This is America” is a powerful piece of art that doubles as a serious political challenge we would all do well to take our time to unpack on its own merits.
Glover has been running in and out of his own Sunken Place for years. He now seems emotionally and intellectually capable enough – not to mention well resourced – to begin addressing his demons directly, not with jarring and flat stand-up witticisms and tweets, but with a trickster’s truth, a token spent in the machine of America, that now kicks out difficult agendas and self-reflection. And not just his own demons, but all of our respective American demons. Time will tell if the last year of work from Glover (which includes the second season of what is arguably the best show on television) heralds a prodigal son’s return. Beyonce stomped her foot firmly into political progression back in 2016 and is still finding ways to incorporate the platforms of her people into her work. Some of the people who thought the now-iconic cultural imagery of her Lemonade videos back then were merely intellectual blips on her marketing plan fell over themselves praising her utterly black 2018 Coachella performance. Maybe lightning will strike twice here.
Glover has been broadcasting the code of his internal processes for years – interrogating his values, confronting his self-definition, shocking audiences into acknowledging how they treat him – and we keep turning that work into “bold statements” and “genius”. While his work may be those things here and there now, they were always process and warnings first. He is not giving us his answers, but his questions. Almost everything he is putting out into the world – his current music, Atlanta, “This is America”, his desire to break into other industries and art forms – is about what Glover is becoming. His interviews are lifeless and flat because everything he has to say is apparent in his work. It is when we do not contextualize him and the stages of his process that we begin filling the gaps of what we can’t or refuse to acknowledge about him with what we want the work to be. Any artist worth their weight in paintbrushes and pencils will tell you that the process is where the magic of not only creation but self-realization occurs. As an audience, a part in each of us knows this. We missed all the real magic in the art by the time we see/hear/read it, and we want things to be deeper than they are. We want the people who create these things to be radically different from us, to be geniuses, a creative class at arm’s length, because then we aren’t on the hook for the implications of the work we consume. We tell ourselves that the thinking and plotting and craftsmanship and practice and booking and sharing…that’s the work of people like that. Except Glover is not giving us only his work. He is giving us his process. Taken as a whole, his is an out loud and messy process. He has not always been a technician. When he was a twentysomething shock comic, he tweeted like a shock comic, he thought and acted as a twentysomething shock comic. When he became a father and a broader creator whom other people’s careers depended on, he put aside shocking comic things. Well, maybe: “This is America” is still shot through with humor and shock and searching, and the second season of Atlanta has ripped the laundry sheet off of black people’s relationship – or lack thereof – to psychology, pathos and demasculation for the world to see. And none of this work seems like pathology. It seems like an earnest attempt to understand, to appreciate, to embrace, to love oneself without irony or punchline.
Glover is not playing deep chess here – his signals are many and clear if you remember who you’re dealing with – and yet we have already begun to punish him for trying. You’d think we’d be more sympathetic. His audiences (he has many now where he used to have just one or two) are consumed with plugging the holes in our souls with competing desires to be both lauded for everything while being held accountable for nothing. We have a desire bordering on need to process everything as fast as possible so as not to feel left behind in the public stream of discourse, and a fear of accountability for the knowledge we acquire from processing works of significance. We want the work, but not the work it suggests we should do in return, and we want it right now (both immediately and politically). What used to be the job of critic has become the hive mind of critic, despite our having skipped several important and introspective steps in a quest for That Viral Life that would traditionally qualify one for such work, like the ability to contextualize, objective scholarship, or an appreciation of artistic malleability. We still got them standards, though.
Blackness has been a lot of things for Glover: a joke, a crutch, an insult, a crime, a balm, a scarlet letter, a mythology, and most recently a fount of boons. What success he has had at every turn in his career is owed in no small part to his blackness despite his considerable gifts, even when he appears to declaim it (satirically, but when your satire comes at the expense of an otherwise infrequently mentioned people, the jokes ain’t funny). Without his blackness, the jokes, tweets, writing gigs, and acting jobs aren’t possible, not the way he uses it, or has had it used by others (all of me is hoping those days are over for him). Despite a long-standing criticism of Glover being dismissive of blackness, there isn’t a lot in Glover’s resume that doesn’t play upon his blackness by design or default. He has symbolically been having his hair touched by his professions for years. He has either made humor of his not-entirely fictive tokenism, or he has used the same to open the door for further, more backhanded explorations. Explorations not by us into him, mind you, but by either his historically white audiences into blackness, or him into himself. These explorations don’t make him special or a genius, of course. Every black person alive spins a carnival wheel with our various masks in each slot every hour in self-defense or searching for meaning or just trying to express a blackness that, if I may be reductively honest here, we have long held like a box we hope no one opens because it contains no pat answers.
(Note: That is not an admonishment of blackness as defined; we have done the best with what we have been given, fought for the rest, and cast aside more gold than we can remember ever having owned. But our answer to criticism of what that blackness is doing can’t be, “You’re not black so you wouldn’t understand.” People have been saying Glover doesn’t understand for years. Now with a TV show he barely appears in and a fresh political video, he’s Sidney Poitier in Brother John (a movie so black most black people haven’t even seen it and I know this because we’d all be free by now if we had).
What does make the current work of Glover profound is that he pulled the trigger on his idea and its values…which, coincidentally, is the second most recurring activity in the “This is America” video after dancing. He stepped up to the plate, took his shot, and let the work do its job. No one in a position to be publicly considered a genius is out here asking to be labeled as such. No one is out here waving their longhand application for the position of “black leader.” No one is out here checking the productive veracity of their work against an agreed-upon list of politically solvent demands from The Black Community. And yet within 24 hours of dropping a music video, I have seen every notably suspect tweet, joke, clip, theory, sexual predilection, and secondhand anecdote about Glover that can be had, while recognizing that none of the information is new. Much of today has felt like someone at the FBI cracking the seal on Glover’s COINTELPRO file only to discover it was filled with stuff already in public domain. Which is not to say that what’s in there should be wholly dismissed. I disagree with any suggestion that he should be given a pass on his past attempts to be relevant. It does raise what is, for me anyway, a serious question: what does “problematic” mean now? As philosophical shorthand, the line “All your faves are problematic” is a sharp turn of phrase, but it’s hardly a stump worthy of launching a campaign of justice work. Does it mean that the person – first a person of merit and worth, now perhaps or most definitely a culprit – can be “fixed?” What does it want the fave in question to do exactly, and to whom? Is it important that the people tearing down your faves were generally not fans of your fave to begin with? Should your fave come to them for approval? What if your fave never speaks and just keeps cranking out notable work? Is the work enough? Should this person have ever been a fave? Let me be clear: I can make anything trash. Prince, Sade, your favorite meal, a five year old’s handmade Mother’s Day card, whatever. It is a gift second only to my ability to determine the racism in anything (which is really more like a math problem than a mutant super power). I am not here to defend Glover. That’s not my job, desire, or an item on my bucket list. He has not asked for such defense, nor would I be inclined to give it if he did. But I’ll be damned if I don’t see remarkable growth in his work; many, many levels above his ham-fisted attempts to make an impression a decade ago. You, I, nor Glover is served by how easily I can make him trash after what appears to be a genuine attempt to not be trash with “This is America”. And if you don’t see the difference in the guy who did that weak stand-up joint Weirdo seven years ago and what’s happening in two seasons of Atlanta right now? You just don’t want to have the Donald Glover version of this conversation. And that’s fine.
I am not convinced that Kanye West’s latest outrage-inducing meltdown – I mean, marketing tactic aimed at supplanting any qualitative musical analysis of his forthcoming work – isn’t Glover’s fault. Someone probably told him to check out an advance copy of the new Gambino video a week ago and West went into spin mode, knowing he was only dropping the lyrical haymaker “whoop dee dee scoop poop” this season. In light of West’s comments about slavery, “This is America” certainly seems to be the kind of intellectual platform that would set someone like West off. West has made what are arguably his dumbest comments on record outside of the lyrics for “Lift Yourself”. That’s saying a lot, but it is because of his sycophants – the people who will write a thousand words on why West isn’t actually and regularly hot garbage, but some kind of Machiavellian plant to expose an evil industry that hates new ideas – that I want to take issue with this theory by way of comparison. There are numerous parallels to be drawn between West and Glover now that weren’t possible before this week, but I want to focus on one, one that West himself brought to the table: free thinking.
The whole time some of us have been wondering what Kanye might do next, Glover was actually out in the world thinking free. In the timing and content of “This is America”, the work is an addendum to the career fallout of celebrities like both West and Glover, but also serves as an indictment of the choices such a lifestyle informs. Glover has looked out into the world, walked its streets, learned some things, made his connections. West has done the exact opposite of those things, and his comments and work show it. “This is America” gives us a wide range of ideas and targets with which to intellectually wrestle with (another reason to be mad at anyone who has a conclusive thinkpiece already logged in one day about it). The video shows what the song only alludes to: how we, as a society, allow ourselves to be genuinely distracted – or self-medicated on media, social or otherwise – to dismiss the horrors around us. It makes a show of Glover as both antagonist and victim. It does a lot of things that we should be applying to other things, again, in Glover’s oeuvre as well as the issues it raises. It is a call to do better and to recognize that Glover struggles with these questions as well. It’s not a song about gun control, but it’s easy to see why the video might make one think it is. Unfortunately, half of the interpretations of the video act as if it has no lyrics, so a lot of the conversations about what the video means – or better, can mean – are lost in lazy and impatient hot takes.
Both Glover and West want to conquer the world, to prove that they can do anything, to capture a freedom so vibrant and honest that slavery and anything associated with it finally becomes an actual distant memory receding in the rear view mirror of forty acres of progress. Glover has clearly pondered and grappled and studied and absorbed the many varieties of blackness in his people. In Atlanta, he has made an empathetic quilt of it; in “This is America”, he has literally weaponized America’s anti-blackness. By contrast, West has, at least in his mind, graduated beyond, distanced himself from, and desensitized himself from pretty much all aspects of the blackness of his people that are not his own. He has done this to the point that the real world work of his people has become disposable on the altar of what he believes to be a new, free thought and for whom Donald Trump is apparently the priest, the truth long drowned beneath the still surface of a long-spoiled narcissist’s reflection in the shallowest of pools. Both men’s struggle with self-definition are courses that have been run in their respective lives, aimed at the same finish line, but with completely different hurdles. Glover is the Kanye that his acolytes have been suggesting was there all along: multi-talented, smart, slick on them white folks, working on several levels at once. But it’s been fifteen years since West blew up. Still waiting for evidence of this Renaissance ‘Ye. In light of what Glover has been doing for the last couple of years, I’m struggling to understand what I’m supposed to be waiting for. No one is that good an actor. West is not playing a game with social perception, or at least not the game you think he’s playing. This is not performance art. Someone is going to get hurt behind what West says, and West doesn’t know enough to care. Glover has made it clear that despite where he’s been or what you think of him, he knows enough to care.
Glover has been sending signals about his attempts to unpack his blackness and how it relates to not only his work, but his life. At times those signals have been muddled or outright failed. In the end, those signals have led him to this moment and this place, into a world that feels on the brink of inescapable self-destruction, and hungers for well-wrought art that speaks truth to power. Much like the protagonist of Lars von Trier’s 2011 film, Melancholia, when all else crumbles around you, sometimes the best guide is the person who has seen the worst in themselves, wants to do better, and isn’t afraid to share their way with you. I haven’t met anyone yet that the internet couldn’t take down in a day if they set their minds to it, so maybe we’re due for a better answer to all of this than “All your faves are problematic.”