Visual tropes and motifs are central to any narrative work. Either literary, cinematic, or, more recently, works of mass digital entertainment, any narrative will seek to evoke collective memory and to some extent, unify the viewer or reader into one receiving entity. When narratives are built with the intent of activism, the visual motifs grow in significance, carrying not only elements of collective memory and creating community through recognition, but also calling to reflection, necessary outrage, and action.

Childish Gambino´s recent video, “This is America“ uses such powerful imagery and symbolism, to the delight of viewers and critics who look for hidden elements in the multi-layered narrative. In a nutshell, the video comprises scenes that recreate violent episodes we recognise from recent history, all to express the condition of black communities and black identity in America, essentially a condition of psychological, social, physical, and symbolic entrapment, which calls for relentless attempts at escape.

 Childish Gambino's striking a pose that references the cover of the “Jump Jim Crow” sheet music, picturing Thomas D. Rice in blackface.

Childish Gambino's striking a pose that references the cover of the “Jump Jim Crow” sheet music, picturing Thomas D. Rice in blackface.

The start of the video sees a black man sitting on a chair and playing his guitar. He will soon be wearing a hood over his head and will be shot by the artist striking a pose that references the cover of the “Jump Jim Crow” sheet music, picturing Thomas D. Rice in blackface. The appropriation of politically-loaded imagery comes with at attempt to subvert history – packed with centuries of stereotypes, violence, and cultural aggression, these couple of minutes comprise a retelling of thousands of individual stories in one, sadly universal, narrative. This calls for the urgent re-evaluation of contemporary America – the blend of 19th-century slavery symbols with modern forms of reducing liberty and rights to black communities invites a necessary account of difference and overlapping. How similar are stories of slavery from stories of modern mass-incarceration?

In the final scene, Gambino escapes through a dark corridor, chased and terrorised. Young Thugh´s words accompany the scene: “Just a black man in this world, you just a barcode, a dog kennelled in the backyard, ain’t a life to a dog, a big dog.“ Tellingly, it remains unsure whether or not he managed to escape.

 Childish Gambino being chased and running in the last scene of 'This is America'.

Childish Gambino being chased and running in the last scene of 'This is America'.

  Devin Allen’s image of a man running from a phalanx of Baltimore Police.

Devin Allen’s image of a man running from a phalanx of Baltimore Police.

Another recent cultural product where this motif is central is Jordan Peele´s “Get Out,” in which the protagonist is forced to escape physical entrapment, albeit layered on a vast surface of history and symbolism. The movie is yet another example of how imagery and visual production play an important role in current conversations around race, gender, and class in America. Both productions are deeply reactive as well as provoking – they push boundaries of violence and employ dark aesthetics with the purpose of disturbing the commonplace, well-behaved nature of intellectual debate, which might fail, at times, to correctly carry the message.

The video and the film manage to blend awareness with affect; reason is doubled by visceral response, all indicating a notable shift in how moviemakers and cultural producers today think of their own genres, pushing limits and exploring the full capacity of the mediums. If entertainment started out as a form of escaping reality, for a little while, and delving into better fictive world, these productions will refuse this escape – they will keep us trapped in fiction that is all too familiar, it will disturb our comfort, until we find a real way out.

Words: Veronica Mafolino

Copy edited by Elena Stanciu