By: Ridgeway Woulfe
America is undoubtedly in the midst of a painful identity crisis. Childish Gambino released a summer hit entitled “This is America,” where he deftly gives his perception on America. In the video, the happy-go-lucky music and lyrics providing a sense of joy. At points throughout the song, the joyful music gives way to a menacing beat with a proclamation that “this is America.” The dancing gives way gun violence, at one point mirroring Dylan Roof’s terrorist attack. Then, the dancing resumes with a focus on dancing distracting from waves of gruesome activities in the background—suicide, making it rain, police brutality, rioting, and more. On the balconies, children record everything with melancholy. By the end, Gambino pauses and dances atop a car by himself. It is unclear whether the rapper/singer intends to say if the upbeat portions are causing the destruction behind him or if it is a coping mechanism. It does, however, clearly establish that he views America as a place of immense joy preventing the people to properly address serious issues.
Childish Gambino announces who he thinks America is.
With his new Showtime program, Borat and Bruno star Sacha Baron Cohen approaches this question without providing an answer. Instead of telling his opinion, Cohen seeks to answer the titular question by posing as outlandish characters to let America tell him who it is. Thus far in Who is America, the audience has seen him posing as a far-right conspiracy theorist, a far-left lecturer, an ex-con pursuing the arts, an Israeli terrorism expert, an Italian playboy, and a Finnish Youtuber. He has had a range of guests unsuspectingly answering who is America. Politicians from former Vice President Dick Cheney to former presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders, to house representatives like Jason Spencer; notorious sheriffs Joe Arpaio and David Clark; celebrities, artists, lobbyists, townhalls, and more. All have been duped into taking interviews with these characters, and each interview provides a new snippet of who America is.
Cohen masterfully decides whether to invoke authenticity by either making the guests feel entirely within or outside their comfort zones. His clowning has already yielded some outrageous results. Jason Spencer has resigned after repeatedly shouting the N-word and shoving his bare buttocks towards Cohen in his “training” to combat terrorism. Politicians have marketed kid-friendly guns in pursuit of arming children to combat gun violence. Celebrities have quickly agreed to be photoshopped to show themselves volunteering with starving African children, though it never happened. Town halls have launched into aggressive, unabashed Islamophobia at the mention of a mosque being built in their town. Club-goers have danced to the screams and sounds allegedly from within a prison.
Though these moments are shocking, meaningful, and entertaining in isolation, the meaning is intensified when considered as puzzle pieces. Piece by piece, Cohen begins to unveil who America is. Thus far, it has revealed a divided America, but we all know that is the case at this point. Beyond the preliminary issue, Who is America begins to answer why we are divided. It reveals an urgency to remain vigilant in our perspectives. It reveals a willingness to create “truth” for selfish purposes. It reveals a lack of remorse for any unintended consequences to our actions. It reveals a pursuit of image and entertainment above all else. More than anything, it shows how quick we are to give up values and critical thinking in pursuit of our goals.
“Who is America” is the conversation we’ve avoided for centuries in pursuit of homogeny. Now we as a society are asking the question. We are starting to hear answers. We are seeing the chasms. We are seeing our society’s fragility. The answer has been frightening and enraging. As we get our answer to who America is, however, there is another question we will have to ask in its wake. Who will America be?