Dancing as Political Intervention? Comparing “This Is America” and “This Is Me”

In the following post, I draw upon popular works from two distinct genres for analysis of dance as both a narrative form and as a political intervention. Childish Gambino (a.k.a. Donald Glover) released “This is America” in May 2018, the official video for which has received 454 million views on YouTube at the time of this post.[1] In December 2017, Michael Gracey, with assistance from Tony Award-winning songwriters,[2] directed The Greatest Showman—”a kaleidoscopic [on-screen] musical about P.T. Barnum”[3]—which features a track called “This is Me” (Keala Settle).[4] While the blog posts we have written so far have focused primarily on a work we have looked at in class, I would like to do a comparison between “This Is America,” which we watched as a group, and “This Is Me,” which we did not. I believe that contrasting the messages and effects of these two productions strengthens analysis of Gambino’s piece, and was a way of putting into practice critical viewership in my own consumption of The Greatest Showman recently.

The titular similarity between “This is America” and “This is Me” was a determinant for the entrance of these two works into dialogue. It is their likeness only in name that underscores a juxtaposition in form and message, and problematizes white conceptions of individual agency backed by glorified self-reliance. “This Is Me,” despite its performance by a collective of ‘freaks,’[5] obediently projects white (particularly male) expectations of command over his station, positing independence and oppression as mindsets rather than embedded features of institutions. Indeed, Jennifer Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) toasts P.T. Barnum with a summation of his character’s arc: “he is proof that a man’s station is limited only by his imagination.”[6]

This message is far more empowering for some than others. I thoroughly adore this movie, despite the criticism it has received, because a) I think the singing, choreography, costumes, and “celebration of humanity” are wonderful; and b) because I find Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron very handsome. While it is meant to be a fantastic and historically inaccurate montage of anthems, its major shortcoming is not in its depiction of P.T. Barnum and the circus as having positive social power. Rather, it is more the extent to which the movie simplifies (or omits mention of?) constraints on social mobility by persons deemed abject. By overemphasizing the power that an individual’s pride in their own existence has to provide escape velocity from a socially stratified orbit, the power of the musical ensemble—and therein the sociopolitical collective—to “flatten everything within a 50-mile radius”[7] with their voices is unfortunately undermined.

If one were to deal with the pieces chronologically, “This Is America” can be read as a racial-political rejoinder to “This Is Me”—an empowerment anthem within a populist film. While an appealing celebration of visual diversity—along axes of identity like gender, race, body shape, etc.—the non-abject, white viewer is subtly but suddenly abdicated of democratic responsibility to ‘other’ countrypeople as members of the freak collective assert: “I won’t let the shame sink in.”[8] This works as part of a feel-good narrative for a largely white, socially enfranchised audience, as the individuality conveyed by the lyric assigns the marginalized the task of inwardly negotiating terms of their existence­–“who [they’re] meant to be” as individuals. Speaking to the vocal power of the ensemble in The Greatest Showman, one critic noted,  “these are refrains configured to flatten everything within a 50-mile radius.” While sonically the chorus may be greater than the sum of its individual vocalists, depicted are marginalized people merely articulating internal negotiations simultaneously, not collectively interrogating the social conditions that define “who [they’re] meant to be.”

The dissonance between the palatable, familiar message of individualism and the subversive vocal and corporeal performance by a freak collective is shocking. Negotiating shame-inducing experiences and making meaning for oneself—quietly, inwardly—is significant here because of the threatening possibility of its opposite. Collective negotiation, assertion, and action does not look like a bearded lady-led troupe in The Greatest Showman; it looks like Ferguson, Missouri. Baltimore, Maryland, Dallas, Texas. It also looks like Charlottesville, Virginia. Indeed, this is America.

Gambino’s embodiment of America, as “both the caricature and the ring-leader,”[9] acts as a noteworthy backdrop to the political moment in which The Greatest Showman was so well-received. First, dancing functions very differently in Gambino’s work. When done by him, dancing historicizes blackness as other, simultaneously internationalizing[10] oppression of black people and calling to the fore the double-bind of living as black in America (e.g. being held responsible for comparatives shortcoming in a system laden with intentionally oppressive socio-economic and cultural structures[11]).

Violence is not merely a running theme in Gambino’s video, but more so a constant. The jarring execution of the guitar-soloist-turned-shackled-prisoner early on and the massacre of the church choir (both alluding to real incidences of violence against black people) show direct interaction between American [ring]leadership and victims. Between those two flashpoints, however, the video relies on mise-en-scène to create layered relationships, an example of which are the schoolchildren dancing behind Gambino. I read the schoolchildren’s performance as a means of survival in a hostile environment—a metaphor for most marginalized Americans’ patterns of consumption and labor in a socio-racially stratified system. Only possible to grasp with the long shots is the situation of the schoolchildren between [ring]leadership and the violence constantly unfolding in the background; as a collective, they are an enabler of violence caused by leadership’s behavior. Thus, their dancing extends commentary on the aforementioned double bind with which (especially racial) minority groups are faced: survival in an oppressive system renders one complicit in the oppression of other minoritized groups, even one’s own people. As if it were not obvious, “This Is America” sonicizes and visualizes the shattering of individualism as a potentially defiant force (as in “This Is Me”), implicitly calling for a collective politics.

As riddled with entendre as Gambino’s body expressions are, the mise-en-scène of “This Is America” both repeats and varies the meaning of Gambino’s choreography, erecting visual/sonic structures of feeling which recognize societal systems as paramount. With the choreography for “This Is Me” being its only source of meaning, the potency of asserting pride and place is not understood by any on-screen characters beyond those using trying to use it as a tactic. In making the spectacle the only point of emphasis, “This Is Me” actually undercuts the power of pride as a factor in social progress by making it the only one considered. In spite of criticisms that Gambino’s failure to make (black) social dance the point of the video,[12] I argue that it is precisely this choice—deploying dance as a tool of visual interruption rather than as a cohesive research method—that makes the video profound portrayal of blackness in America.

Just as Nguyen argues the “visual logic” of viewer identification with the top (in gay male pornography) is “staged from the bottom’s point of view,”[13] “This Is Me” encourages identification with historically white, individualist agency narratives from the perspective of the minoritized. “This Is America,” through its acknowledgment and recreation of the social conditions under which blackness is lived, confounds the binary of victim and perpetrator. Avoidance of such a binary negates the possibility of existing an inverted privilege/identification scheme (i.e. through the oppressed, the viewer still identifies with the already privileged oppressor). Gambino presents a counterexample to a privilege-reinforcing identification scheme and, therefore, creates an effective political intervention where “This Is Me” does not. The presence of a privilege-reinforcing identification scheme can thus be used by viewers as a litmus test for a failed political intervention in other media.

Popular media, especially that coming out of Hollywood, is dealing increasingly with themes of identity, diversity, and representation. This makes such media inherently political. Like in formal politics, messages must be crafted to address and resonate with varied constituencies. On the production side, the inclination is to interlace visual conversations of political themes with “shared/American values,” which may work to unintentionally reinforce privilege rather than create new spaces for representation of minoritized identity categories. On the consumption side, I call for more widespread use of the previously described litmus test for political intervention effectiveness among media’s viewership, and encourage critics to incorporate such arguments about films’ messaging into discussion of structural elements.

[1] Hiro Murai, “Childish Gambino – This Is America (Official Music Video),” YouTube, 5 May 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYOjWnS4cMY.

[2] David Sims, “The Astonishing Success of The Greatest Showman,” The Atlantic, 22 Jan. 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/01/the-astonishing-success-of-the-greatest-showman/551081/.

[3] “The Greatest Showman,” IMDb, 2017, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1485796/.

[4] “The Greatest Showman Cast – This Is Me (Official Lyric Video),” Atlantic Records, YouTube, 11 Jan. 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjxugyZCfuw.

[5] Sims, “The Astonishing Success of The Greatest Showman,” Jan. 2018.

[6] Michael Gracey, The Greatest Showman, 20th Century Fox, 8 Dec. 2018.

[7] https://wMichael Hahn, “The Greatest Showman was derided by critics. So why has its soundtrack shot straight to No 1?” The Guardian, 7 Feb. 2018, ww.theguardian.com/film/shortcuts/2018/feb/07/big-choruses-greatest-showman-soundtrack-top-of-charts-hugh-jackman.

[8] Michael Gracey, The Greatest Showman, 20th Century Fox, 8 Dec. 2018.

[9] Alana Yzola, “Hidden Meanings Behind Childish Gambino’s ‘This Is America’ Video Explained,” Insider – YouTube, 9 May 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_LIP7qguYw.

[10] In addition to many viral dance moves appropriated by the video, the schoolchildren and Gambino perform the Gwara Gwara, a South African dance move, on several occasions, creating room to liken racial hierarchies persistent in the U.S. to Apartheid South Africa. See Yzola, “Hidden Meanings,” Insider, 2018; Additionally, in the final bridge, Gambino says: “You just a black man in this world,” thus broadening the scope of discourses around racism, which typically focus on the features of one nation’s political system, to the international.

[11] As in “Get your money, black man (black man).”

[12] Thomas DeFrantz, “b.O.s. 7.3 / This is America,” ASAP Journal, 27 Aug. 2018, asapjournal.com/b-o-s-7-3-this-is-america-thomas-f-defrantz/.

[13] Nguyen Tan Hoang, A View from the Bottom (Duke University Press: 2014), 10.