2018 is the year of surreal blackness. So far, we’ve had Boots Riley rearranging minds in the multiplex with his hyper-smart critique of capitalism Sorry to Bother You. Childish Gambino flipped wigs with his video for “This Is America.” Janelle Monae dropped jaws with her individualized vagina pants for her music video for “PYNK.” Kendrick stayed on the edge with his collab with SZA on the vid “All the Stars.” And now, Terence Nance’s new show Random Acts of Flyness has debuted on HBO. Just in time to keep the summer surreal.
The flyness in the title is, indeed, arranged in random acts of surreal segments and borderless skits. It’s like psychedelic black Cubism, but presented as a satirical sketch show. Technically, it’s a show with skits much like SNL, but it’s much more like In Living Color. It also wears its blackness proudly. Its colors just as vibrant.
In the opening moments of the premiere episode, the show’s host and creator rides a bicycle and speaks directly to the camera: “What up, world. It’s Terence Nance here. Welcome to Random Acts of Flyness — a fucking TV show about the beauty and ugliness of contemporary American life.”
The camera is his phone. We’ve grown used to seeing black men in this view, whether it’s a YouTube rapper or a reaction video, a filmed prank, a dance challenge, video of police violence, recorded acts of racism from fellow citizens or a WorldStar video. This makes the intro feel especially real and right now. It also feels important that Nance isn’t on some dope set, chilling like Desus & Mero. Instead, he’s out in the world, rolling through them streets on his bicycle. Which we all know is a balancing act, one reliant on constant forward motion — a subtle metaphor for blackness in America.
As Nance talks to us, a police car pulls up alongside him. The officer yells instructions at Nance, but he waves off the cop and continues talking to us. It’s a bold, defiant, “I ain’t got time for yo shit” move. The cop, however, cuts him off, causing Nance to crash into the patrol car. The officer gets out, while Nance keeps his phone’s camera trained on him. We assume we know how this scene will play out as they argue about whether it’s lawful for Nance to ride a bike and film himself. When’s the officer gonna get violent, we wonder. But as the cop continues to bark, Nance speaks over him. He tells the cop that he has a TV show, that he’s gainfully employed and that “You’re actually on the television show right now, sir.”
Like magic, hallucinogenic visuals alter the cop’s face. Colors shift. Digital composite effects dance across the filmed reality. And just like that — boom! You and the cop are both in the show, too. Going forward, nothing will be reliably real. All will be up for examination, but from a psychedelic perspective. You’re now in the meta-blackness zone.
Currently, America is witnessing the rise of a wave of black excellence, which includes young black filmmakers. You already know about Ryan Coogler and his industry-redefining films Creed and Black Panther. You know about Barry Jenkins and his Oscar-winning Moonlight. And, of course, Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning Get Out. Same for Dee Rees, who co-wrote and directed Mudbound, which earned four Oscar nominations.
But there are also names you may not know, not yet at least. Names like Alrick Brown, Rashaad Ernesto Green, Victoria Mahoney and Andrew Dosunmu. Many of them, such as Brown, Green and Rees were classmates at NYU and studied together under Spike Lee in his third-year directing class. Nance is another worthy member of this group. He’s a few years younger than the rest, although he also attended NYU, only he didn’t attend the film program. He earned his MFA in Studio Art. The fact that he didn’t go to film school definitely shows in his work — but in the best possible ways.
Unlike many film school grads who embrace the tropes and expectations for the medium, Nance plays with film with the exuberance of an amateur, but one who has the artistic sensibilities of a master creator. This is evident in his raft of short films and music videos; it’s also on display in his first feature film An Oversimplification of Her Beauty. Nance intentionally uses a film camera to make his art. And now, Nance is performing this same magic trick on TV.
For Random Acts of Flyness, Nance spins hip-hop culture through a Tumblr aesthetic. The skits have the internal logic and humor of between-song skits on classic rap albums. The attitude of his comedy is defiant and intelligent, like some backpack rapper. This best shows itself when The Roots emcee makes an appearance and presents “Black Thought’s Blackest Thoughts,” one of which is to wonder if it’s objectification to point out that FLOTUS Michelle Obama has a booty. This calls to mind Paul Mooney’s unapologetically black bits on Chappelle’s Show.
The single greatest moment in the premiere episode comes at the halfway point, though. Jon Hamm, the actor best known for playing master advertiser Don Draper on Mad Men, is on a couch. He’s watching television with his family when the TV commercial announcer (also Jon Hamm), asks, “Do you suffer from white thoughts?” Wait, what did I just hear? Couch-bound Jon Hamm asks himself the same question.
The commercial announcer Jon Hamm explains that white thoughts are a symptom of “a disease called Acute Viral Perceptive Albinitis — also known as whiteness.” The fake ad offers a fake product to cure whiteness called White Be Gone. With the help of a gospel choir, Jon Hamm confesses to the camera that he, too, has had white thoughts. His performance starts to slip, he stumbles over his lines. We see the director interrupt Hamm and ask him if he’s okay. He’s not.
To get Hamm back on track, the director tells him, “You are here because the people who call themselves white, those victims, for whatever reason, they trust you — and that beautiful beige face of yours. You see, drunk with whiteness, stumbling in their stupor, you have what it takes to sober them, with that bullish sincerity in your spirit. They need you. Help them.”
These aren’t things you’d ever expect to hear on American television. These are revelations. But Nance isn’t here to convince White America to respect us as co-citizens, as James Baldwin used to say. Instead, Nance aims to transcend the casually-assumed idea that black people must speak to, or about, or view themselves in relation to whiteness. It’s clear Nance has carefully studied Spike Lee’s filmography, absorbed his successes and avoided his failures. (Save for what seems to be his obvious love for Lee’s overlooked sleeper, Bamboozled.) Nance’s show has the same defiant energy, an angry social commentary, a critique masked in humor, that celebrates the resistance found in black history.
The whole show is chock-full of brash graphic art with colorful energy; it’s wildly-edited, crafted to shock, amaze and surprise. Yet Nance picks an essential moment to strip it all away. He roots the show’s midpoint in a quiet realism. He wants your attention focused. He breaks the Fourth Wall, reminding viewers they’re watching a created show. He interrupts the Jon Hamm skit, which we now see on Nance’s editing software as he works on the final cut of show. An iMessage pops up in his workspace. His creative partner, a (presumably) woman of color criticizes the final cut of the show.
She texts that “as ARTISTS we should be addressing whiteness less, and affirming Blackness more…” She adds, “Fuk them, I’m not stuntin them.”
Nance thinks a moment, and then responds, “You right…“
Nothing on TV will ever be the same again.
A black man and (unseen) black woman both just agreed: Fuck white people. “I’m not stuntin them.” With one text exchange, Nance lets us know, this show is for us. For the remainder of the show, we focus on affirming the beauty and variety of blackness. This represents a break with all that’s come before. Both in Nance’s show, and shows like it.
Key & Peele was dope. Chappelle’s Show was woke before we had a word for it. In Living Color was all the way black, and yet, all of these shows were designed for a mainstream audience. Read: white audience. Terence Nance wants us to know: His show is not. Just like Atlanta and Insecure, this is a show rooting for everybody black.
For some, this rhetorical pivot from criticizing whiteness to affirming blackness may not seem like a radical act. But it very much is. In the premiere episode, Nance frees himself, and by extension, all blackness, from its expected and subordinate relation to whiteness. On his show, not only will there be no white supremacy, there will only be black primacy. It’s as if Random Acts of Flyness held a second line funeral for the idea of whiteness.
One weak moment in the premiere is the spectacle of black death. Childish Gambino was recently rightfully criticized for his depiction of a black church choir being gunned down in the video for “This Is America.” He attempted to evoke the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, where Dylann Roof murdered nine black Americans. Instead, Gambino was accused of using the spectacle of black death just to shock. There’s one skit in Random Acts of Flyness where Nance veers dangerously close to making the same mistake.
In it, Ripa the Reaper, played tenderly by Tony-winning actress Tonya Pinkins, is the host of a children’s TV show called Everybody Dies! The premise of the show is she snatches the lives of black children. It’s a dark satire of America’s unslakable thirst for innocent black lives. But watching the show, the shrieks of the children were painful to hear. The image of Ripa the Reaper bashing a child in a trash bag with a iron skillet is cartoonish, but it’s also not funny. Comedy relies on surprise and inversion, hyperbolic exaggeration. The sight of a black child being beaten is not new, nor is it surprising, inverted reality or exaggerated. It’s just tragic. As it is in reality.
Other than that, the only thing I don’t like about the show is the title: Random Acts of Flyness. It just sounds silly, which the show very much is not. It’s funny AF, and smart as your smartest friend. And as chaotic as it is, it does subtle things, like how the premiere ends in the opposite place from where it began — in the city with a white cop hassling Nance. The show closes with Nance now in the mountain wilderness, walking through the woods toward his brother, who’s busy making music. In 30 minutes’ time, Nance takes us on a legitimate journey of black transcendence, and we end up on a mountaintop. And it’s only the very first episode.