A young African-American man addresses his smartphone camera — in vertical mode, no less — while using his other hand to navigate a city on bicycle. He welcomes the audience to his show: “Uh, today we got a whole bunch of flyness, fly stuff for you today — we got black face, that’s always dope. Ya know, love black face. Got Problem 437 of ‘The Thousand Worries a Black Man Shouldn’t Have to Worry About.’ We got music of the mountains with my brother. We’ve got the sexual proclivities of the black community — hold on, I’m trying —.” A police car siren interrupts, its driver trying to get him to pull over. His bike crashes into the cop’s car, and the older white officer gets out to berate him. The moment immediately cuts away to a dreamlike chiaroscuro vignette about black fear in America.
Welcome to the kaleidoscopic mind of Terence Nance.
HBO’s six-part stream-of-consciousness variety series Random Acts of Flyness is a frenetic fever dream. Part documentary, part performance art, part ethnography, part political rallying cry, part poem/comedy/musical/animation, Nance’s work is a spasmodic vision of American culture’s shifting tectonic plates. His intro says it all — this is going to be a mercurial polylith of Adult Swim-like non-sequitur skits and sequences that form something even more profound than its parts. His work is an existential, quasi-Lynchian, DIY cyberpunk excavation of life for young black people in the U.S. and if this sounds like a disarming jumble — well, it is. That’s how it’s meant to be experienced.
Within the last few years, artists such as Donald Glover, Jordan Peele and Boots Riley have risen to notoriety by combining surrealism and social commentary to examine the contemporary black American experience. Nance, a trained visual artist who directed the 2012 Sundance hit An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, stretches their work further into stunning abstraction. In some ways, tonal anthology Random Acts of Flyness feels less like an HBO sketch show than a museum’s modern video art installation. My husband and I debated whether the title’s pun is a play on “kindness” or “violence.” As it turns out, the show exists on this very border.
Nance wants to wake you up. To unsettle you. The pilot, “What Are Your Thoughts on Raising Free Black Children?,” includes: real-life footage of violence against black people; a black-and-white meditation on the fears of black men (like what would happen if you accidentally got into the car of a white person); a ’70s-aesthetic musical skit about death coming for black children; and a faux commercial for a pharmaceutical promising to cure “Albinitis,” or having white thoughts. The second episode is even better, offering a peek inside Nance’s heart beyond his mind. I won’t spoil it for you here.
He juxtaposes humor with strings of thought about shame and oppression. At first, the protean barrage of imagery and gonzo sound design overwhelms the senses. Once your brain gets used to its staccato rhythm, however, you settle in for the ride. Although I couldn’t quite process all the nuances within the moment, I still found myself nodding along (and even dancing along) all the same.
Nance pays particular attention to themes of artifice and motifs of editing — self-editing, cultural editing and, well, literal film editing. In one scene we see him cutting his show on editing software while having a simultaneous chat window conversation with a friend critiquing the “Albinitis” parody. The friend implores him to affirm blackness instead of centering whiteness (and anti-whiteness). This moment becomes Nance’s thesis statement: Random Acts of Flyness exists to let blackness bloom.
The beauty of the series is that it feels lived-in. In a sequence on the sexual lives of young black adults, Nance and artist Doreen Garner interview a young queer man who recounts various experiences dating women. Onscreen we’re treated to a gorgeously low-tech stop-motion adaptation of his story that lacks the antiseptic perfections of mainstream animation. You can literally see the thumb prints on the clay, the paint marks on the puppets’ eyes. (The cinematography is another visual delight – a rare Hollywood camera that knows how to properly light and care for black faces.)
Nance wants to be everything and anything, a gaze deep into the navel of art, race, gender, bodies, perception, media, transformation and technology — not to mention the cultural construction of all those things. The layers are several turtles down. Merely saying it’s “unfocused” seems to lose the point of the show. It’s intended to be a laser blast to the face and also a slick little fish slipping in and out of reach.
Creator: Terence Nance
Premieres: Friday, 12 a.m. ET/PT (HBO)