A thick, angsty pall descended upon the gathering of black viewers nervously awaiting the premiere of one of Black Star Film Fest’s homegrown talents. The space inside the International House in Philadelphia’s University City area was tight—lines curled and folded like a Snakes and Ladders game board—and the room filled with restless joviality. Friday night’s edginess didn’t stem from the exhaustion of watching a day’s worth of films, Philly’s ungodly humid weather or mercury’s retrograde. Instead, it all stemmed from the joy and cautious nerves came along with displaying your art to family members.
At the onset of the shindig, put together by HBO, it made a few festival-goers uneasy, especially considering the tone and energy of Terence Nance’s work. When we did make it to our seats, we started to look at one another as a mass, and the mood lightened from impatience to grace. Love poured onto Nance, who was in the audience for the screening, and together we began to open ourselves up for whatever wildness he and his team concocted. Despite this congregational processing, it would be a while before the grace of that black audience was acknowledged, reciprocated and spoken.
Around the midway mark of HBO’s late-night multimedia meta-series Random Acts of Flyness, viewers are pulled out of the narrative multiverse and into a documentary reality by way of a single text message. In this aside, assistant director Annalise Lockhart pulls up in creator Terence Nance’s inbox with a dose of black existential critique. Sensing the show’s peculiar style and mode slipping on white anthropological goggles, thus rendering the nature of blackness monolithically, Lockhart recommends a two-piece combo. The first is to ensure that he is “addressing whiteness less” and the second implores him to invest in “celebrating blackness more.” This quiet electronic exchange shifts the episode’s racial lens and sets one of the pilot’s many standards by which the showrunners hold themselves accountable.
Bringing intra-group discourse of blackness to a mainstream late-night audience seldom comes with a behind-the-scenes reassurance the creators consider how the material impacts black people politically and psychologically. This seems especially the case in Random Acts, which pursues these modes in a bizarrely brutal-yet-wondrous fashion. The care and self-awareness of Lockhart’s mantric couplet steady a sensational–albeit shaky–first episode while signaling a gorgeous follow-up that fulfills her calling with aplomb.
Lockhart’s “whiteness” target refers to the first fifteen minutes of Random Acts’ pilot. Here, the show blithely splices together provocative segments and narrative-driven stories with vicious, familiar scenes of cops attacking unarmed people through blurry found footage from cellphone footage and dash and helicopter cams. In this, we are met with a torrent of a violent black kinesis—necks snap back by stiff punches, gangs of uniformed police suplex and suffocate black people in broad daylight with headlocks on street corners, shattering bones with batons, ending with rag-dolled bodies ricocheting into street signs or onto concrete after being rammed by police vans. Nance himself begins the cascade: he records an encounter with a white officer spurred on a New York City block for “texting while biking.” Through the cell phone’s lens, we see Nance correct the officer’s assumptions, saying he’s actually filming for his TV show and is “gainfully employed.” But that hardly changes his fate, as Nance ends up facedown on the hood of a police car with an elbow digging into his back.
Functionally, the triggering visuals of white supremacist policing and surveillance establish a starting point for a show about the quirks and divergences of black experiences. But for black people who are well-acquainted with the prospect of everyday malice, kicking off like this comes at the risk of immediate exhaustion. However, Random Acts pivots and picks up even more steam, complicating its presentation and deepening its dialogue with us.
In a series of segments titled “Everybody Dies!” that spoofs old-school children’s shows, Ripa the Reaper (played by Tonya Pinkins) gleefully finds ways—from rigged trivia to outright murderous means—to escort a host of precious black children from a door marked “Life” to another marked “Death” with tiny outstretched black hands waiting to take them in. With the growing number of children she sends into the hole, Pinkins’ face begins to seethe and crack under the burden of being the cheerful intermediary in a black purgatory. In our final moments with her, a tear rips across her wide, forced smile after she’s just shoved another batch of black kids into the abyss. Without taking a breath, the scene cuts to a montage of black mothers recounting ways in which they, and their children, are endangered, including moments with Serena Williams. The montage grounds this woozy segment in a stark reality for black mothers. They are not only called to display resignation—to be meek when police kill their children—but are also unduly threatened by white medical institutions even before their children are born. The metaphoric imagining of Ripa the Reaper, who could’ve been merely a moment with a strong black mother “laughing to keep from crying,” becomes an opportunity to impart crucial information from a traditionally marginalized sensibility in many black spaces.
The second half of the pilot performs a cleaner, less triggering effort to focus on experiences within black communities and interpersonal relationships. Lockhart’s message follows a cheeky albeit on-the-nose segment starring Jon Hamm. In this meta-commercial, the actor talks to white people about the relative ignorance of the source of their racist impulses. But it’s later, during a public access-style segment, where Nance and his colleague, Doreen Garner, interview a bisexual man named Yeleen Cohen, that Random Acts is at its most generative.
Bisexual black men are noticeably absent from even the most sexually “diverse” television shows. Luckily, Nance and Garner do not ask Yeleen to speak to the totality of bisexual experience. Instead, through a tale about opening up his stable relationship with his girlfriend, Yeleen describes the flexibility of his presentation and slowly reveals the edges and social tightropes he evades to live truthfully within himself. The segment is an utter delight, as the retelling is brightened by animated cartoons and chalk drawings further vivifying Cohen’s experience.
As if taking a cue from the interview, Random Acts seems to brighten as it comes to a close, working to realize the second half of Lockhart’s imperative: “celebrating blackness more.” The show argues, to do that, viewers must peer into black folks’ eyes and envision us as whole beings, not pieces of flesh to be bought and butchered, nor identities made for sensationalizing. Random Acts operates within the realism of black death in a disastrously white world but cares enough to celebrate the energy black people expend to realize and sustain themselves. The most harrowing moments of the show are those where the pain is real, but it does ensure that the care viewers need comes on time. At its most sardonic, fanciful and ferocious, Random Acts of Flyness is remarkably aware, not just of the social context in which it emerges, but also of its lofty ambitions.