To say that HBO’s new late-night series Random Acts of Flyness is unlike anything on television would be an understatement. Director and creator Terence Nance has created a provocative six-episode series that’s part documentary, part animation, part musical, part talk show — and wholly focused on what it is to be black in America.
The premiere episode’s urgency reflects the fact that Nance has been mulling over the concept for years: “I think I was in college — I can’t remember exactly when I had it, but I remember I had the direct document I wrote down in 2006. It was like the same thing as it is now…But the kind of first time it got going, to the point where there’s full emotion and momentum … was in about 2014.”
The series kicks off with Nance recording himself on his phone as he bikes down a residential New York block. He’s speaking to the camera when a squad car pulls up alongside him. Within the context of the show — and the skin color of our protagonist — it’s all too easy to guess what comes next. When he is stopped, for what the officer believes to be texting and driving, a tense encounter quickly turns violent, as Nance is slammed to the hood of the squad car. The chase and the fear that follows are expected; the ending, however, is not.
There is no clear and concise way to describe Random Acts of Flyness, not even for Nance. “[Filmmaker] Kahlil Joseph was quoting Miles Davis [and] he said, ‘I just make the s—. I let y’all figure out what to call it.’ I very much subscribe to that. I just make it. I don’t really have words for it. If I could describe [it], I probably wouldn’t make it because the act of making it is an attempt to articulate stuff that I don’t have words for.”
Maybe that’s the point. Watching the Tonya Pinkins’ Grim Reaper break down during the spoof children’s show segment Everybody Dies!, in which she can no longer handle sending children to their death, or Jon Hamm’s mock infomercial White Be Gone, a product to cure “white thoughts (such as All Lives Matter)” — neither of which subscribe to a specific genre or are dished out into easily digestible doses — Nance’s points are clear. When the audience is met with a sequence of clips cutting from activist Deborah Johnson to tennis star Serena Williams highlighting the complications both women endured during childbirth, it is a clear reflection on the fact that black women in America are still three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white American women.
In the second episode, Nance’s exploration of gender, the patriarchy, and toxic masculinity converges in a beautiful fantasy where a group of black men gather in the street for a group hug.
In a time when Hollywood is finally turning more welcoming of black artists, from TV breakouts Donald Glover and Issa Rae to film directors Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler, it’d be easy to say that, now more than ever, black creative expression is reaching new heights. For Nance, however, a healthy dose of skepticism is important.
“It’s beautiful, but I don’t know there’s as much newness at play as [has] been reported,” he explains. “But I welcome the idea that there’s a different tonality, there’s a different aesthetic — there’s a different aesthetic language that’s definitely evolving. We’re the next generation.”
Nance’s big break came in 2012, when his film An Oversimplification of Her Beauty premiered to widespread acclaim at Sundance: “It was just a really huge opportunity for me and a paradigm shift in terms of like visibility for the stuff I was doing.” Nance spent the next years trying to get his film out in the world, self-distributing only after winning the Gotham Award for Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You.
Even with critical acclaim, Nance found it difficult to navigate the business of the industry — one where he’s reportedly in early talks to direct Space Jam 2 starring Lebron James (reps for Warner Bros. had no comment) — that did not really know what to do with his voice. “I don’t think my first film necessarily attracted the type of funding or people you need to fund another feature film, and I think I was probably unwilling to make another micro-budget feature,” says Nance.
In 2014, Nance got a call from Flyness collaborator Tamir Muhammad, encouraging him to submit a treatment to a program at Time Warner called 150. With that submission, the two began shopping the show around town, eventually landing at HBO.
While the placement of Nance’s avant-garde series may seem odd at a network as mainstream as HBO, also home to Rae’s Insecure, he has been given the freedom to create a show 12 years in the making.
Random Acts of Flyness premieres Aug. 3 at 9 p.m. ET.