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Terence Nance Is Deconstructing Traditional Ideas of ‘Blackness’ on HBO’s Subversive ‘Random Acts of Flyness’

Ultimately, the new HBO series is a celebration of the variety within the socio-political hypernym known as "blackness."

"Random Acts of Flyness" HBO Doreen Garner and Terence Nance

Doreen Garner and Terence Nance in “Random Acts of Flyness”

HBO

No one will ever mistake Terence Nance for an easy sell. His debut feature, “An Oversimplication of Her Beauty,” marked a deeply personal, candid, and whimsical exploration of time, memory, and loss. And his new HBO late-night series, “Random Acts of Flyness,” is structured like a fantastical variety show centered on the varied experiences of people of African descent living in the United States. Built on thematically linked visual essays that run from a few seconds to several minutes in length, it’s difficult to categorize and demanding. This isn’t the stuff of classic binge viewing; this is Nance’s vision, unfiltered.

The first episode unfolds in an almost slapdash fashion, with public-access TV production values. As he did in “Oversimplification of Her Beauty,” Nance appears in almost every single segment, blending animation with live-action, unpacking issues that include racial profiling by the police, the police assault on black bodies, white privilege, “The Sexual Proclivities of the Black Community” and a bit more.

So, to crib from Nance’s recent New York Times profile, is America ready? Can it be? Engaged members of the diverse community Nance celebrates and challenges should be. Other liberal-minded onlookers may also quickly become familiar with “Random Acts of Flyness,” but it could also become a litmus test for any lingering or latent issues of homophobia, racism, sexism, and other social phobias. Looking in Nance’s mirror, your mileage may vary.

To some degree, the public response is irrelevant. Nance found a perch at HBO, a premium network with a growing streaming service and wide international reach. Yes, it has a midnight broadcast slot (although that’s increasingly less relevant with the rise of HBO Go), which indicates HBO knows it’s for a niche audience. Still, that seems like a lesser barrier; a black content creator produced work that isn’t easily accessible for a mainstream platform. That’s an achievement in itself.

Among the more difficult notions broached in Nance’s series are notions of gender and sexual fluidity within the black community, brought to the fore in unapologetic fashion. So are the limited definitions of “black masculinity” and the potential toxicity of those suffocating restrictions — issues considered taboo among many in the black community. Conversations abound on negotiating the pros and cons of “airing our dirty laundry,” the implication being that suggesting any disharmony to those outside the group is considered a cultural faux pas. (Never mind that the perception of a  monolithic black community is erroneous, even as it’s sometimes embraced within the community itself.)

Nance clearly doesn’t care about any discomfort audiences might feel in watching two black men kissing passionately on screen; nor does he worry about viewers who might recognize themselves in a lengthy segment on street harassment of black women by black men.Someone might identify with a police officer who has, at one time or another, harassed or assaulted black people if only because he could. It might be uncomfortable if you’re white and refuse to acknowledge what your privilege affords you. That’s not Nance’s problem.

On that last front, we see Jon Hamm starring, with a “bullish sincerity,” in a lengthy skit about confronting an illness known as “white thoughts.” That segment is immediately followed by a brief segment in which Nance receives online feedback from a trusted friend on the early segments of the first episode, all of which essentially observe “black life” in relation to white supremacy. The unseen friend, initially hesitant, replies to Nance’s insistence on a response by stating: “It seems to me that as [black] artists we should be addressing whiteness less, and affirming blackness more.”

After a very short pause to reflect, Nance replies, “You right,” and with that affirmation, Nance appears to signal his audience that the series will shift focus and become more of an exclusive, frank conversation on the socio-political hypernym known as “blackness” — a discussion that will be held specifically among black people.

The second episode feels more assured in its direction, advancing with a fluidity that complements the gender fluidity of a few of the episode’s subject. A seven-minute musical segment on “black masculinity” — a sort of “West Side Story” send-off sung in both English and Spanish — is at once random, fun, and thoughtful. It suggests other variety shows created by African-American artists, like “In Living Color” and “Chappelle’s Show,” but it’s a signature all its own.

There’s a fascistic self-regulation that happens within groups: what it means to be a man; what it means to be a woman; what it means to be black. Nance’s proposition is that none of these social constructs can be controlled; they’re all multi-dimensional and infinite in their possibilities. Nance wants nothing less than a radicalization of how “blackness” is depicted on screen, which demands the creative space not only from institutions like HBO, but also from black audiences who are willing to follow him as he explores his vision.

Based on the two episodes made available to the press, the series celebrates the variety of this thing we call “blackness,” for which no one can claim dominion. Nance is effectively moderating a discussion on what it means to be black in America today, a country with a well-documented legacy of oppression, marginalization, and disenfranchisement of black and brown people, as well as of women, the LGBTQ community, and any other group that isn’t primarily comprised of white, heterosexual men. With an unapologetic preoccupation with “black being” (to quote African-American filmmaker and artist Arthur Jafa), Nance’s camera gives his subjects the physical and metaphorical space to speak their truths as an audience of outsiders observes, listens, and hopefully learns in the process. But no matter what it brings out in its audience, those discoveries won’t soon be forgotten.

“Random Acts of Flyness” airs Fridays at 11:59 pm ET on HBO.

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