The artist and film-maker, generating buzz with the HBO variety show Random Acts of Flyness, talks about bringing his unusual vision to the small screen
If you happen to come across HBOs new late-night variety show Random Acts of Flyness, youll find yourself wondering, probably within the first several minutes, just whose brainchild it is. The show opens with a semi-scripted encounter between a cop and a black man riding his bike; minutes later, Jon Hamm appears in an informercial for White Be Gone, a goopy elixir promising to heal those who suffer from white thoughts. Theres a claymation vignette that follows a bisexual black man in New York; a talkshow segment unpacking the sexual proclivities of the black community; and a short called Everybody Dies, featuring similarly dour maxims sung to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Its futuristic and retro, clear-eyed but utterly unclassifiable. It is, for lack of a better word or genre, Terence Nance.
An artist, film-maker, and occasional musician, Nance is often reflexively labeled with catch-all terms: eclectic, experimental, non-linear, avant-garde. In their sheer aesthetic variance, his films are all of those things. But Random Acts of Flyness, Nances new weekly, half-hour program with HBO, exposes our collective vernacular gap when it comes to describing work, particularly by artists of color, thats unmoored from cinematic convention. Random Acts can be silly, like Drunk History or Tim & Eric, and then fiercely political; angry, and then celebratory; sarcastic, then dead serious. But Nance, who after several shorts and one acclaimed feature has come to acquire a kind of indie-auteur status, wasnt worried the shows strangeness would prevent it from finding a home in todays engorged television landscape.
My understanding of HBOs palette is that theyre interested in stuff thats different from what they already have, says the 36-year-old, who lives in Brooklyn. If they have something for the people who watch Entourage, theyre not going to do something else with lots of people walking around Hollywood talking to each other on phones. Knowing that they wanted to keep people guessing, that this is one of the few places where Ill be able to do what I do and do it well, gave me a lot of confidence.
Confident might be the best way to characterize Nances vision, through which the black experience is rendered in kaleidoscopic but refined detail. That comes, in part, from his early exposure to black cinema and theater. As a child Nance spent time watching his mother, an actor and acting coach, rehearse August Wilson plays, from which he learned how to tell when acting is really bad. By the time he was seven, hed seen Do The Right Thing, To Sleep with Anger and Daughters of the Dust in theaters. Nances father, a local news cameraman and music aesthete, frequently photographed him and his siblings, rounding out a household that entertained most conceivable artistic disciplines.
He wasnt the type to say, Oh, whats that noisy hip-hop? says Nance of his father. Hed buy it and try to break it down. He wasnt a DJ, but he was a curator with music. That kind of eclecticism is part and parcel to what Im doing every day.
On Random Acts of Flyness, however, Nance was more directly influenced by his own work and that of his close friends and collaborators, many of whom appear in the show or helped write and direct it. The Ghanaian film-maker Frances Bodomo directed four episodes; the tonality, Nance says, of her short sci-fi film Afronauts (about the Zambian space program in the 1960s) is reflected in his own taste for the surreal. The sculptor Doreen Garner, another member of what Nance calls his insular, in-community, appears as Aunteee Doreeny in the talkshow segment, in which the two discuss the invisibility of the bisexual black man.
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