“Sorry brother, I just want to say you’re making some important shit.”
Terence Nance is talking about his television directorial debut Random Acts of Flyness when a man interrupts to commend him on the show. Nance thanks him before continuing the interview but the brief exchange is indicative of the moment he’s having right now. That this series — which features everything from skits where Black Thought wonders if he’s objectifying Michelle Obama to a vignette titled “Everybody Dies” where a black woman plays the grim reaper who sends black kids to their end — is, of course, resonating with HBO’s audience. But it is particularly and especially resonating with their black audience.
To accurately describe Random Acts of Flyness is difficult. Fans have taken to Twitter to offer numerous descriptions of the show but this is arguably the best one, from user @amiriboykin: “Random Acts of Flyness is a postmodern dystopian negro spiritual.” As absurd as it sounds the description is accurate — in theory anyway. Random Acts offers representations of blackness not often seen on TV. The show also plays with viewers’ expectations and ideas of blackness. When Random Acts of Flyness’ first episode culminates to a standoff with Nance and a police officer, viewers will surely expect the worst. But when Nance commits a literal act of flyness and flies to freedom, the relief is just as joyful as it is humorous, Nance reimagining a common occurrence for black people in a way that’s obviously unreal but wonderfully enchanting.
Random Acts of Flyness‘ origins date back to 2006 when a 24-year-old Nance was studying visual art at New York University. Around this time Nance’s younger brother, Nelson Nance — who goes by his music moniker Nelson Bandela and is a writer on the show — suggested that they try and get in touch with TV One to see if they could take over its block of late-night programming. The pair never acted on the idea and Nance turned his focus to directing and producing several short films instead. One of the most notable of those shorts is An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, a film that foreshadowed both themes and filming techniques that would later be presented in Random Acts of Flyness, as it shifts between animation and live-action sequences to tell the story of an artist — portrayed by Nance — who is stood up on a date by a woman.
In 2014, Nance revisited the TV show idea when Tamir Muhammad — who now serves as an Executive Producer on Random Acts — approached him about making a news show through OneFifty, a mini-studio within Time Warner. With OneFifty, Nance was able to complete a part of the show’s pilot and finished it up after HBO commissioned it. In the process, he hired people he worked with on previous projects to explore the complexities of blackness’ past, present, and future through the lens of Random Acts. Blackness isn’t a monolith, and how it’s examined, explored, and celebrated doesn’t need to be either. Which is why Random Acts is being so well-received. So much so that news of its renewal was announced before the first season’s completion.
Okayplayer spoke with Nance about how being from Dallas, Texas, influences the show, black surrealism, and getting compared to Donald Glover’s Atlanta.
Okayplayer: Throughout the show, you shift between animated and live-action sequences. How do you go about choosing how each part is filmed?
Terence Nance: Generally, it’s shot more like a movie, so we’re doing it in one production breath even though it feels like a like a grab bag of stuff. For the season as a whole, I see it as one big team of people. I’ve pretty much worked with everyone before this show except a few. I think almost everyone who animated on the show, or at least half, also animated on Oversimplification, and that was six years ago. But there are also people I work with on the show that I hadn’t worked with before but we were friends for a long time. The pilot was really the first opportunity for us to work together directly.
What is it like working with your brother on the show?
Our creative partnership goes back forever. For a long time, he was my go-to editor, even in previous years before he stopped doing that and focused more on music. So I think that it’s a comfort working with him, and not just him but just people who I have worked with a long time where we’d get things done more efficiently than if it was a completely cold relationship.
Along with your brother, you’re also working with a diverse team of writers. How do you all challenge and inform each other?
This isn’t any of our first trips around the farm in terms of working with each other or making this type of work. We just get in a room together and write some shit down. Like, “OK, this is what we’re here to do in the macro as exemplified in this 30-minute film. How do we sit here in this room and come up with something that’s gonna keep our attention and keep us fed, and keep us feeling good and feeling on the edge of our seat, and at the tip of our tongue, in a lot of ways?”
We definitely saw ourselves as making a film that was broken into parts. It’s episodic but I think that our challenge to ourselves was to make it feel like watching. We wanna reward that experience: if you’re watching the fifth episode or the fourth episode the experience would be enhanced if you’ve watched the previous three. We don’t think it’s a variety show or a sketch show or anything like that. Even the idea of segments was like “Who cares?” We were just thinking about engaging our most free-associative selves and embodying the way we interact in a show.
Random Acts of Flyness comes up at a time where people are saying a black surrealist moment is happening in film and television. What are your thoughts on that?
I just feel like people forget. People forgot what Martin was actually like. I was watching a rerun of Martin where he was being gaslit by his mother — who was played by Martin [Lawrence] too — into thinking that Gina is trying to poison him for insurance money. In the episode, the mom makes some biscuits and acts like Gina made them and they’re poison.
And as Martin is trying to eat the biscuits he starts to hear his mother talking and then she comes up in a thought bubble above his head, and his mother is him. So he’s having a conversation with his mother as him but then it becomes physical. Like, they can actually touch each other, and it’s totally surreal.
But nobody walked away calling Martin the Afro-surrealist revolution. Or even Chappelle’s Show or In Living Color. I think we have new cameras and technology has evolved but I think the concepts and ways of envisioning those concepts that blackness generates, are not out of the fucking blue.
I think they all have a really deep history that has always been growing. I don’t think it’s a moment. I think we’re the now but there’s an assumption about our own ability to self-determine creatively, and I think saying surrealism means that. When people say “surrealism” it just means that they see, it seems like, “I get to do what I want to do.” Even with Atlanta or Insecure, it’s like: “Oh, it feels like there’s no white person telling them what should or shouldn’t happen.” Or not even a white person but more like a corporate, other creative force is doing that. I think that nobody’s saying that Lena Waithe‘s The Chi is Afro-surrealist. But I think it also has that — “Oh, that person is doing what they wanna do. It has that ‘freedom’ to it.” To talk about it as a moment is maybe disrespectful to what gestated it.
That’s a very interesting way of putting it because sometimes I feel like when people say “surreal,” it’s coded for something. Like, “Oh, wow, black creators are capable of doing this.”
It is but I don’t think it’s intended in that way. Also, we’re not sitting there, thinking “Let’s just make this surreal moment.” To call “Everybody Dies” [a segment written by Frances Bodomo] surreal, in some way sort of divorces it from the fact that it is documenting — in a very direct way — Frances and our communities’ emotional state. To see it as surreal, it’s like, no, that’s just me explaining to you what it is, using a sort of metaphor. Or a sort of allegory. I think that actual surrealism is way more divorced from reality.
I want to talk about “Everybody Dies.” You said that Frances wrote it but what was your impression of it?
It reminds me very much of Sethe in [Toni Morrison‘s] Beloved. Because you’re watching this person care for her daughter and then it’s revealed the care meant killing one of her children. And that she’s the protagonist and we’re watching her — depending on where you sit and how you hear the story — either devolve into insanity or reckon with what is ultimately a loving act.
I think that there’s a lot of echoes of that that are connected to Ripa the Reaper. Ripa’s immortal. Ripa doesn’t even have to live or die. But it still distresses her. You see how distressed she is with the process. Like, the life that gets lived in between. And I think that’s what reminds me of Sethe’s thought process: because it’s like “Well, everybody dies. This baby’s going to die at some point anyway, let’s make it now.”
You’re originally from Dallas. How did living there affect your approach to the show?
This reminds me of Wyatt Cenac, who’s been a supporter of my work since the beginning and I’m hugely indebted to him as just a person and a friend. He saw an early cut of the first three episodes and his first reaction was, “This is the most Dallas shit of all time.”
Which is funny for him to say since he’s from Dallas. I can’t remember exactly what else he said. He articulated it in this weird way of just like the backwoods-ness of it. There’s this sort of sprawl, this urbanity that’s just for show. It’s almost like you could push it down. And especially in Dallas there’s always been this pretense of an entertainment industry. I remember they used to film Walker, Texas Ranger there.
But the kind of kitschiness of something like Walker, Texas Ranger being filmed on a back lot in Los Colinas, which is the suburb of Dallas where they make corporate videos and public access-y looking things. That when we’re growing up in the late ’80s and ’90s a lot of what you’re seeing on TV is locally produced.
The fact that I could roam also plays a part. There was no supervision, in the same way, there might be in other cities or now. It was just sort of learn about life, wandering in that way. I grew up in this place called the State Thomas Community which was — to my knowledge — the oldest black community in Dallas. My parents grew up there during segregation. Like, State Thomas is right next to downtown Dallas.
Also, I think any place that’s got a lot of black people and isn’t super expensive to live is gonna start to develop some freaky art shit. There’s a music culture in Dallas that’s really specific and has a direct jazz lineage from Ornette Coleman all the way to Roy Hargrove. This is connected to Houston, too. Robert Glasper, Chris Dave, and all those people.
Look at someone like Erykah Badu and her career. Nobody’s been able to copy that. Being a mother, being prolific, living in the city that you kind of made, making what is arguably “alternative music” that still finds a way to be top 40 consistently. Even now with what my brother’s doing and Dolfin Records and Liv.e, Jon Bap, Ben Hixon, and all those people. You could never be whack. You can’t.
I’m able to do what I’m doing because of that, because of that lineage. It didn’t happen yesterday. It’s not some new shit. It’s been happening.
Jon Bap, who we’ve covered, has his music featured throughout the series. How did you meet him?
Nelson introduced me to Jon a few years ago when he showed me his music. We hadn’t met in person yet — we would just email and text each other. I think the first thing we worked on together was a short film on Jimi Hendrix called Jimi Could Have Fallen from the Sky. I sent it to him and was like “Put something here and something here,” and he had it back to me in a day. He also contributed to another film I produced that’s not out yet called Piu Piu. His versatility is just crazy. Just watching him work is such a joy.
Another aspect of the show I enjoy is the multi-media aspect such as the White People Won’t Save You website and the Kekubian Assassin game. How would you say these supplementary mediums contribute to the show?
We wanna extend the world wherever we can so people can catch it. Even if they never see the show I think the game has value and hopefully we’ll be able to do more of that live experience stuff. There are a few little things that are extensions of the show but they receive just as much attention creatively as the show did. So I think in subsequent seasons we’d be able to explore that and do more.
The show has been getting compared to Atlanta a lot. What’re your thoughts on that?
It’s a privilege to be compared to the hottest show on TV, that became that way by existing in a creative space that was unfiltered and uncompromising in its representation of a certain group of people. Again, I think what people are recognizing when they compare the shows isn’t as much an alignment of aesthetic as opposed to an alignment of “Oh it looks like those people are doing what they wanna be doing.” I think that’s refreshing whether you’re black or not. There’s no attempt to obey any sort of precedent.
The experience of watching Atlanta is watching the stakes constantly being raised in a group of artists’ ability to double down on being themselves, and just that alone is so instructive for all artists doing anything. Hopefully, we’re in that spirit too.
The show just got renewed. Are there already discussions happening in regards to what you want to explore in the second season that you didn’t get to do in the first? And who is your dream guest appearance?
I have no idea. Since we just wrapped up the first season it’s very difficult for me to think about what even is gonna happen in the second season. I feel like my dream guest is somebody whose name I don’t know. I’m much more interested in just working with people and building a community.
One of the big things I’ve taken away from Spike Lee’s career is just how many performers he helped to create space for to do things they don’t get to do. Like, Giancarlo Esposito. You look at his first few movies with Spike and it’s like, “What is going on?” He’s doing all kind of shit. He gets to do Buggin’ Out [in Do the Right Thing] and the dean of the fraternity [in School Daze]. That’s what I’m interested in. I’m much more interested in meeting a Kevin Rivera, who played Pan in one of our segments called “Nuncaland.” Or a Le’Asha Julius, who played Wendy in “Nuncaland” and was also part of the pilot.
Those experiences give me that feeling that I’m chasing.