Today, I want to look at the song that plays when we first encounter Chris and Rose on screen. As images of Chris’s photographs flash across the screen, we hear Childish Gambino’s “Redbone” from “Awaken, My Love” (2016). Countering the soulful sound of the song, the lyrics focus on the narrator’s paranoia over infidelity in a relationship. Jordan Peele talks about his choice of “Redbone” for the film and mentions “But stay woke” which opens the chorus. While this song is important, it made me start to think about my first introduction to Childish Gambino back in 2011 when I heard about his album Camp on NPR and looked up the video for the first single, “Bonfire.”
After watching Get Out, I started to think back to “Bonfire” and tried to look up some interpretations of the video online, to no avail. Initially, the video, in relation to the song’s lyrics, perplexed me, and I was never really sure what to take away from the mixture of the words and the images. However, now that I think about it, I cannot help but consider them along the same lines as a film like Get Out or even in relation to something like Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman.
Lyrically, “Bonfire” exudes braggadocio as Gambino raps about his image and justifying his position as a rapper and not just as an actor. Specifically, he raps about all of the women, of different ethnic backgrounds, that he gets by being Childish Gambino. The lyrics don’t seem like anything out of the ordinary for some hip hop songs; however, taken in conjunction with the video, Gambino is making another commentary about his identity and image.
As the air raid siren goes off, we see Gambino sit up in a field of trees with a noose around his neck. Struggling to figure out where he is and to get his breath back, he gags and eventually vomits up blood. When he realizes there is a noose around his throat, he looks up to see that he was hanging from the limb of a tree and somehow the rope snapped and he fell to the ground. This is where the video starts and where the lines about his nondiscriminatory tendencies when it comes to sexual relationships when it comes to “white girls” and “black girls.” From the outset, the image of lynching and the interracial relationships takes center stage in the video.
Trying to find help amongst the trees, he wanders around calling out to see if anyone is there. Eventually, he sees a campfire off in the distance and begins to run towards it. The camera then cuts to the people gathered around the campfire as a doppelganger of Gambino tells a ghost story that appears to do with sex an lynching with a flashlight to his face. Three girls of different ethnic backgrounds and a white guy sit around the fire listening to the tale. Before he can get to the campfire, a white man appears holding a noose and a knife; Gambino starts to scream at the people gathered around the fire, but they can’t hear him.
He runs towards the group, trips, and comes across a knife in the ground. When he gets up, he becomes disoriented trying to find the group again. He gets to the fire before the white man does and screams for the people to listen to him, but again they can’t hear him. At the end of the story, the man comes up behind the group with the noose around his neck and the knife in his hand scaring them.
The doppelganger Gambino laughs, and everyone else joins in. The doppelganger goes to the knife carrying man and both high five each other jovially. Everyone gets up and leaves the fire, and Gambino stands there, knife in hand, pondering what just happened. He falls to the ground, and the noose reappears around his neck. The video ends where it begins, as if on a continuous loop that will repeat over and over again without interruption.
The video plays on tropes of interracial relationships and lynchings. In the manner of presentation, it takes on a gothic, really psychological, vibe that explores the interiority of the subject. While the lyrics to the song are all about braggadocio and posturing, the video counters them with an image of vulnerability and continual subjugation. The doppelganger plays along in this show, even laughing and giving a hi five to the guy with the noose and knife.
In ways, this reminds me of the opening of Get Out. As “Redbone” plays, the audience gets its first view of Chris as he stands in front of the fogged-up mirror after a shower. Positioned in front of the mirror, without a shirt on, we see two things. For one, the mirror acts as a reflection of Chris; it presents us with an image, not his true self. Two, it shows Chris as vulnerable because he does not have a shirt on. This juxtaposition of image and vulnerability mirrors the countering of the lyrics and the video for Gambino’s “Bonfire.” The lyrics present an image of a hyper-masculine, over the top, rapper, but the video shows something completely opposite, a scared individual caught in a repetitive, psychological cycle of racism that he cannot escape.
While Chris does not exude machismo and does not act in a braggadocious manner, we do see him come face-to-face with these preconceived stereotypes that African American men are hyper-sexual. During the bingo (auction) scene, a woman, with her husband who is in a wheelchair and wearing an oxygen mask, looks Chris up and down before walking over and putting her hand around his bicep. As she does this, she asks Chris and Rose if the rumors about the size of African American men’s manhood are true or not.
This hyper-sexual African American male and the fears of interracial relationships work in tandem with the lyrics and visual accompaniment for “Bonfire.” Taken in conjunction, these two pieces play on a stereotype and an absurd fear, both of which worked to help maintain white supremacy through arguments that the white community must protect the purity of white women. Even though interracial relationships appear in Get Out, the fears of he relationship do not necessarily take on a physical form. Rather, like the video for “Bonfire,” the latent fears come across as something more sinister and psychological.