Thursday, May 10, 2018

Boy to man

Donald Glover is already having a big month of May, and Solo: A Star Wars Story hasn’t even come out yet.

One of the biggest viral phenomena in ages – if that’s the right way to refer to it – is Glover’s new song and video “This is America,” which already has nearly 55 million views on YouTube at the time I’m writing these words, a number that will likely increase by five million by the time I actually publish. And it only came out like five days ago.

It’s all anyone’s talking about, or so I assume, as I don’t hang out on Facebook like I once did or on Twitter like I never did.

Only 24 hours after watching it (three times) did I even realize that Glover was the artist on the song. In fact, I did not even know he rapped.

The song is released by Childish Gambino, a name I’d heard, as had my wife. Neither of us realized it was an alter ego for Glover himself. I saw Glover dancing in the video, and his mouth moving to the words – he grooves through a warehouse as all sorts of outlandish things happen, though I don’t need to tell you because you have no doubt already watched it. But I thought Glover was doing kind of a Christopher Walken in “Weapon of Choice,” not actually doing the rapping himself. I thought he was just putting a celebrity face on the lacerating lyrics that wrestle with the place of black people in today’s America, in a way that’s oblique enough not to be pedantic.

But no, that’s Glover, rapping and dancing and running for his life in the chilling final ten seconds of the video.

And getting a nation, even a world, talking.

That’s a long way to have come for the boy who started out as very much of a boy.

It was impossible to do anything other than infantilize Glover on Community, as he played a guy who was essentially a nerd despite his good looks and athletic abilities. He was best friends with Abad (Danny Pudi), a nerd so aggressively nerdish that he was either actually on the spectrum, or on it for all intents and purposes. Their interactions involved the fetishization of geek culture, and often consisted of role-playing, larping, or other activities traditionally associated with arrested development.

Glover’s years since Community ended have entailed a fairly rapid maturation toward adulthood.

I’ve only watched one episode of Atlanta, which I watched on a plane, hoping to be able to pick up the rest of the series at some point. That hope has ultimately gone frustrated, as I’ve never subscribed to the right services to easily find it (and didn’t like the one episode enough to go out of my way to pay for it). But I immediately noticed the change in Glover. Not only was this not a jokey role at all – the one episode I saw, anyway – but it reflected a conscious choice to trade in his nerd bonafides for something more clearly hip and stylish. The difference seemed to be how much he was “trying,” which also indicated his range as an actor. Troy Barnes was a very try-hard type of role, as the comedy in Community was broad, and everyone needed to play to the back row. Atlanta represented something entirely different – a human-scale rap drama (do I have that right?) in which Earnest Marks was the coolest cat on the screen. I’m sure Glover does more with that character than I’m suggesting, and I’d be able to tell you what it is if I’d seen more episodes. But either way it’s meant to be a compliment.

His movie roles have not been an abandonment of his geek affiliations by any means. One is a movie about male strippers, Magic Mike XXL, in which I should clearly have realized he has the ability to rap, as that’s what he does. (More spoken word, maybe, if I remember correctly.) But then it’s been The Martian and Spider-Man: Homecoming, both very genre, or at least genre adjacent. I actually don’t remember him in Spider-Man: Homecoming, but in The Martian he plays a bit of a frazzled genius trying to figure out how to save an astronaut stranded on Mars. It’s also a different role from Troy Barnes, a step toward adulthood, which was appropriate as he was in his early 30s at the time.

Lando Calrissian is kind of a mixture of both. Yes, being in a Star Wars movie obviously means Glover is still steeped in geek culture. However, even a young version of Lando is a debonair motherfucker. The charm of Lando is an inherently adult type of charm, and you wouldn’t cast someone in this role unless he was pretty capable of demonstrating a certain type of maturity. He looks pretty regal in that cape, or robe, or whatever it is.

The “This is America” video is really what made me sit up and take notice of how far Glover has come in the persona he projects. He may not be playing the role of a rapper in this video, as it turns out he is actually that guy, but he is playing a role. The choice of his outfit is meant to tell you what that is, as well as the gray in his beard, which might even be artificial (he could be a greybeard at 34, but probably not).

I’m a little hesitant to write this next paragraph because I’m concerned about being misconstrued. If I’ve misunderstood what Glover is doing in this video, it could make me part of the problem rather than part of the solution. But it seems to me that he’s playing a role defined by white America’s view of him, not his own self-perception or presentation of self. By choosing to wear his bear long and scraggly (with that fleck of gray), and by opting for no shirt, and by making that crazy expression he’s making in the shot featured above, Glover seems to be playing the role of “crazy drunk black guy a white cop might accidentally shoot.” He’s not the geek from Community. He’s not the hip and street smart producer from Atlanta. He’s a 54-year-old welfare recipient drunk on malt liquor. And it’s only one of the buttons he’s pushing in this engrossing and eminently rewatchable video.

Glover seems not to be so much rejecting his status as a boy, but rejecting the way he was once an easy pill for white America to swallow. It’s no secret that the fans of Community were largely white males, even with not one but two African-American main characters, which means it managed to exceed the requirements of tokenism. Glover’s involvement in the show, and particularly the role he played, made him a comfortable type of black person for whites to like. He was “one of the good ones.”

Now, Glover wants to show us he’s not that. He’s as much of a part of our conversation on race as anyone in the culture is. In fact, in very real and profound ways, he’s driving that conversation.

Which is a pretty damn adult thing to be doing.