As suggested by their titles, Terence Nance’s films and performance pieces defy easy categorization.
His first feature, “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty” (2012) , could be seen as a romantic comedy but then it gets overcomplicated with repetitions and reflexivity and wanders into a realm where Spike Lee links up with Jean-Luc Godard.
More recently, his “18 Black Girls / Boys Ages 1-18 Who Have Arrived at the Singularity and Are Thus Spiritual Machines: $X in an Edition of $97 Quadrillion” was performed at Sundance in 2017. “I google the phrase ‘one-year-old black boy’ ascending in age one to 18,” Nance explains. “I allow Google’s ‘popular searches’ algorithm to predict what comes after the phrase and peruse the results based on what Google thinks I want to search for in a black boy. The algorithm generates results based on the most popular searches so it can be theorized that the black boys that the algorithm predicts are the black boys we are searching for.”
Compared to these, his six-part, quasi-documentary HBO series “Random Acts of Flyness” seems relatively straightforward. Each half-hour episode explores — via free association, satire, surreality, and giddy inventiveness — what Nance describes as “the beauty and ugliness of contemporary American life.”
The absurdity, too, as is seen in the opening sequence of the first program, in which Nance films himself on a cellphone and gets busted by an NYPD cop for texting while biking. Nance tries to talk his way out of the situation by explaining that he’s shooting a TV show, gets a beating from the cop — which Nance’s cellphone records — and ends up flying away, high above the city, with the officer radioing in vain for backup. This is life as it should be.
Also included in this freewheeling and often brutally sardonic 30 minutes is a tacky cable-access game show called “Everybody Dies!!” in which the matronly but unrelenting Ripa the Reaper sings a ditty to African-American schoolchildren pointing out that the title experience is likely to happen a lot sooner to black people. A montage of video footage of actual killings, many at the hands of the police, is followed by Ripa shoving the kids into the black void behind a door labeled “DEATH.”
Actor Jon Hamm makes a cameo in an infomercial for a topical-ointment cure for “white thoughts” — it’s an application of black face makeup. When a voice-over suggests it might be better to pay more attention to “black thoughts,” a segue is made to a talk show on sexuality in the black community.
The latter features a bisexual man, and it opens up future programs to issues other than racism, such as sexual violence, misogyny, and gender fluidity. Episode Two, for example, offers an animated first-person-shooter game in which female players can blast street harassers; a dark and affecting segment in which transgender people discuss the abuse and triumphs they have experienced; and an exuberant musical set in the ’hood featuring a Dominican kid called Pan, a Queen named Wendy, and a magic place called “Nuncaland.”
Elegantly weird animation and an irresistible soundtrack add counterpoint to Nance’s inventiveness. Like Jordan Peele, in “Get Out” (2017), and Boots Riley, in the recent “Sorry to Bother You,” he recognizes that one of the best ways to fight the power is through scorn, irony, and hilarity.
“Random Acts of Flyness” can be seen Fridays at midnight on HBO.firstname.lastname@example.org.