The Times reported on Thursday that on earlier in the week, at Smith College, someone called the campus police to report a “suspicious black male sitting in the common room”—a person who was in fact a female Smith student, Oumou Kanoute, who was doing nothing but eating lunch. (As she said, “All I did was be black.”) This report, one of many similar, and similarly infuriating, recent incidents, provides an apt and appalling documentary context for the broadcast, tonight at midnight on HBO, of the passionately inventive half-hour-long first episode of Terence Nance’s series “Random Acts of Flyness.” It’s a work in the vein of sketch comedy that transforms the format into a stream of cinematic consciousness, centered on the question of a black American person’s self-conception when blackness itself is effectively criminalized. It’s also a crucial demonstration that the progressive political cinema is also inseparable from progressive aesthetic imagination.
The series starts with Nance introducing himself and the show as he rides a bike in Brooklyn, in close-up, with the image narrowed to a peek, adorned with animated overlays, the soundtrack punctuated with bursts of dubbed-in applause—until he’s confronted by a police officer (played by Robert Kirk), who stops him for texting while biking. But when Nance explains that he’s not texting, he’s filming—and that the officer is on camera, too—the officer becomes violent. In addition to using frame-breaking comedic conventions for bitterly serious purposes, Nance, from the start, also presents images themselves—who gets to make them and of whom, who gets to control their use and to show them—as a fundamental battleground on which American society fundamentally threatens black people.
Nance’s first-person storytelling—he’s frequently on camera in various sequences of the episode, as in his dramatization of a fearsome tale in which he emerged from a movie theatre, got into a car that resembled his but wasn’t his, and had the police called on him by the white woman whose car it was—is also a matter of relating collective stories, and he invents original, yet nonetheless personal, ways of doing so. The idea of collaboration is at the heart of the modern cinema. Movies have always been a group art, one in which the principal artist, the director, is inevitably working with, and depending on, the artistry of others. In the modern cinema, this fact becomes a question as well as a creative challenge—at the simplest level, with improvisation, but also with the integration of real-life people into a film in the form of interviews, the conspicuous and reflexive involvement of behind-the-scenes collaborators into onscreen action, and other devices and forms that expand the artistic range of the filmmakers by creating an open cinematic space for other participants.
Nance, in his feature film, “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty,” did exactly that: he told a story about his tentative romance with a woman named Namik Minter in a form that is, from the start, freely collage-like, featuring a kaleidoscopic blend of live action and various kinds of animation and effects, overlapping voice-overs, declarative and decorative title cards, and multiple and varying perspectives on the story, including, above all, Minter’s own. In the first episode of “Random Acts of Flyness,” Nance does something similar. He includes significant chunks of another director’s work—Frances Bodomo’s great short film “Everybody Dies!” (from the compilation film “collective:unconscious”), a theatrical parody of a children’s TV show, in which Tonya Pinkins plays the host, Ripa the Reaper, who is forced to find ways to send her guests, black children, to their deaths. Nance intercuts clips from Bodomo’s film with documentary scenes about police violence against black people and about the indifference of authorities (legal and medical) to the resulting physical pain endured by black people. (He also includes a clip from Shaka King’s remarkable short “LaZercism,” starring Lakeith Stanfield.)
The collaborative expansion of “Random Acts of Flyness” extends to what plays out like a talk show, in which Nance (in the character of T. Nasty) and Doreen Garner (as Aunteee Doreeny) do a sequence about the sexuality of black people and, in particular, bisexual black men, for which they interview Yeelen Cohen (appearing under his own name), who details his own love life—which, then, Nance wondrously dramatizes through a series of wry yet sweetly intimate and tenderly expressive claymation scenes.
The most stunning bit of frame-breaking reflexivity is also an astounding moment of cultural criticism and self-criticism. It involves a faux commercial for a medical product called “White Be Gone,” which cures “acute viral perceptive albinitis,” in which Jon Hamm plays himself (and multiple other roles, often at the same time), and it involves Nance’s discussion about it with the first assistant director, Annalise Lockhart. What they discuss is the very core of the show; it’s a twist that, like a sudden pulling back of a curtain, reveals a big idea that has been at work throughout. It’s not giving away too much to say that one of Nance’s most moving realizations of that idea is also among the simplest: a series of cinematic portraits of black people that, matched with voice-over and onscreen titles, dismisses the hateful practice of blackface in favor of the loving depiction of actual black faces.
Nance offers a musical performance by Norvis Junior (whose music was at the center of Nance’s 2015 short film “Swimming in Your Skin Again”) in a heavily wooded setting with a blend of ritualized rapture and technological wonder. When I interviewed Nance at the New Yorker Festival, in 2013, and asked about the free-flowing, collage-like format of “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty,” he explained that the movie’s many animated sequences were all very time-consuming to make and required a great deal of planning—and that, as a result, even what looked like spontaneous decisions or juxtapositions were things he had carefully worked out in advance. For all the polyphonic and polyrhythmic, abrupt and mercurial juxtapositions, of which the first episode of “Random Acts of Flyness” is formed, it’s also a work of meticulous composition that highlights the imaginative astonishments, political perspectives, and personal insights that are unleashed by the cinema’s technical power. Nance’s definitive display of effects-driven political fantasy comes in another masterstroke that’s too good to spoil; let me just add—keep watching to the end of the end credits.