I didn't expect the misinterpretation of it being black vs. white which just wasn't the case or intention at all.

Pluralist chatted by email with Canadian Comedian Nicole Arbou​r, whose  reinterpretation of Childish Gambino's "This Is America" garnered public backlash over accusations she'd traduced the intent of the original.

What: On May 5, Childish Gambino (actor and musician Donald Glover) rocked the internet with his video for the song "This Is America." The video is Glover's stark, claustrophobic portrayal of what he sees as the black experience in America, submerged in (if not suffocated by) a greedy and violent culture.

On Saturday, Canadian comedian Nicole Arbour released “This Is America: Women's Edit,” which she directed and performed in. Arbour's homage spins Gambino's visuals to focus on the experience of Western women in a society that hasn't fully outgrown its patriarchal roots. The themes in Arbour's version range from date-rape to Western beauty standards to the unshatterable glass ceiling.

Critics of Arbour's video have accused her of replacing Gambino's subversive message about racial despair with one about petty, bourgie discomforts.

Yesha Callahan ​wrote for The Root that Arbour "gentrified" and "colonized" the original video. 

Fueling the controversy is a deleted tweet from May 4, in which Arbour said she was "sick of people mad at slavery" and urged a focus on the contemporary plight of "economic slavery."

Nicole Arbour tweet

Arbour's video reached over a million views in just two days. 

Why: On the one hand, Arbour's remake of Gambino's video fits into a recurring criticism of contemporary feminism -- that it focuses too heavily on middle-class travails and fails to take account of society's truly forgotten and disempowered men and women.

On the other, Arbour's video doesn't in any way negate Gambino's original. Rather, it gives it a spin, using Gambino's art as a reference point to offer a differing perspective on life in ​America

Nor did Arbour's tweet, taken at face value, seek to trivialize contemporary black experience in America. In fact, it could be read as calling for more attention to what oppression looks like today, rather than what it did nearly two centuries ago.


Pluralist: What did you set out to do in the remake?

Nicole Arbour: The purpose of my rendition was to honor the spirit of the video which absolutely moved me, by adding my and many women’s life experiences and truths to the brave and brutal truths expressed in the original.

It was created with every intention of bringing a light to women’s experiences such as the shaming of mothers breastfeeding, commonplace date rape drugging, the labels put on us of 'prude or hoe,' pressures to create a family, workplace harassment, the glass ceiling, drug dependency, effects of social media on modern relationships and self, and included a nod to the cheerleaders who have come forward demanding at least a minimum wage from the multi-million dollar corporations they work for.

It was a tongue-in-cheek way to give additional glory to what I believe is the most impactful piece of art in recent years.

How did you express this message visually?

In lieu of Gambino's Jim Crow pose, I opted for Rosie The Riveter by J. Howard Miller.

The children dancing was replaced by the hyper-sexualized backup dance style most professional dancers have become reluctantly accustomed to.

And for me, the young girl having her Legos smashed and replaced with makeup brushes and a Youtube makeup tutorial speaks to my fears for the next generation.

Oh, and the Oakland cheerleaders getting less than minimum wage was pretty on the nose, but still really important for me to express.

Was the reference to Gambino's work part of your message?

I believe it's the most impactful piece of art I've seen in recent years and obviously a pop culture phenomenon.

I also firmly believe the best thing that can happen in America and North America right now is for everyone to create their own version of this video and show what life is like from their side.

Through this honesty, I believe we can discover a new level of empathy and understanding for each other that will ultimately and finally lead us to healing and unity that is desperately needed in society. What can we agree on? What do we have in common? Where are we hurting? Start there, then rebuild.

You took a video that focused on the experience of black Americans and interpreted it to focus on the struggle of women. Did you expect any backlash for it?

I didn't expect the misinterpretation of it being black vs. white, which just wasn't the case or intention at all.

I completely appreciate, due to the sensitive nature of the original, that some wrongfully drew this conclusion.

However, we had an amazing and very diverse cast and creative team behind it, all of whom signed in to honor the original while adding more truth from another perspective.

How is the backlash affecting you?

Unfounded criticism doesn't bother me. If someone likes my work, great! If not, that's ok.

However, when I see my tongue in cheek responses to trolls, or past jokes from comedy scripts and stand up taken out of context and re-posted with the intent to hurt those most sensitive and affected by these topics, it sucks.

I'm learning how to navigate having such a large voice online while holding onto creative freedom and it's an interesting learning curve working around those who are trying to create narratives that just aren't present and malice intent that was never there to get a headline or re-tweet.

Let's talk about The Tweet. You wrote, "I'm so sick of people mad at Slavery..."

That tweet was made May 4th, 2018 after seeing more people fighting over slavery online. I really believe that discussion in it's current form, is not conducive to resolution, reforms, or meaningful change. 

There needs to be an energy shift towards real solutions. 

What has happened throughout history is horrific, but the answer doesn't lie in re-hashing it and continuing that pain, rather in developing strategies to dissolve the socioeconomic divide within our lifetime. I really believe it's possible too.