Represent: ‘Random Acts of Flyness’ is an engrossing exploration of African-American culture

By Jim Sabataso

Whenever there’s a discussion about representation of nonwhite culture in popular media, there’s inevitably someone who will make the case for the preservation of white-European culture.

“Why are other cultures celebrated, while white culture is diminished and shamed?” they complain, “Why is it so wrong to celebrate being white?”

It follows the same blinkered, zero-sum-game thinking that has fueled Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rhetoric, and emboldened white nationalists to disingenuously paint themselves as an oppressed class.

The rationale is, if you get something, I lose something. If there are more TV shows about people of color, there are fewer ones for white people. It’s a laughably ignorant argument, if you think about it. White-European culture is our country’s default setting. The history of film and television, both in front of and behind the camera, is painted in shades of white.

(And let’s just take a moment to ask why it’s so hard to enjoy a text about people who don’t look like you? People of color do it all the damn time.)

Even as networks and studios undertake efforts to increase representation, content by and for white people is hardly in short supply. Last year, Variety reported that, of all the lead actors in scripted series ordered by the big-five networks (NBC, ABC, CBS, CW, Fox) for the 2017-18 season, “only 20 percent were Hispanic or nonwhite, and only 35 percent were female. Of the showrunners, 10 percent were nonwhite or Hispanic and 29 percent were female.”

So rest easy, white folks, your precious culture is doing just fine.

These thoughts were rattling around my head while I screened the first three episodes of “Random Acts of Flyness,” a new HBO late-night sketch show created by and starring artist Terence Nance. The series, which has already been renewed for a second season, is a dense, complex and fascinating piece of television that stands as an audacious, artful celebration and exploration of African-American culture and black identity.

“Sketch show” is an inadequate descriptor for “Random Acts.” While there are short written segments that play like comedy sketches, the show is more than that. Thirty-minute episodes, which occasionally have a framing device or recurring theme, frenetically jump from one segment to another, varying in tone and style along the way. Musical numbers, animation, YouTube video parodies, interviews, monologues and dramatic pieces all crash together, at times in a jarring fashion due to the series’ glitchy, abrupt editing style.

That editing reinforces the dream-like quality that permeates the series. Nance is clearly working in the same surrealist sandbox as “Atlanta” and “Get Out,” two other texts by African-American creators that grapple with blackness in unexpected and uncanny ways.

The pilot episode opens with Nance shooting a video on his phone while riding his bike. A cop stops him for “texting while riding,” and things quickly escalate, despite Nance’s efforts to defuse the situation. The rest of the show unfolds amid interstitial check-ins with Nance and his pursuer. The segment calls to mind far more tragic real-life interactions between black men and police, such as the death of Philando Castile, which itself was, in part, documented live on Facebook.

Another segment in the pilot, featuring an intimate interview with a gender-fluid, bisexual black man, presents an aspect of black sexuality that is rarely discussed. Likewise, a beautifully shot series of monologues by trans men and women reveals their experiences in their own words.

In one of the show’s more overtly comedic segments, Jon Hamm plays a spokesman in an ad parody about a product called “White Be Gone,” which helps cure “white thoughts.” The sketch ends with Nance receiving a text from a colleague who challenges him by writing, “as artists we should be addressing whiteness less … and affirming Blackness more.”

Such tension is at play throughout the series, as it poses difficult questions but chooses to complicate them rather than providing easy-to-discern answers. Indeed, Nance seems to thrive within that ambiguous space. He’s an imaginative artist who does the unexpected. This is the type of show where you genuinely don’t know what will happen next. And, while it might take a few minutes to get on the show’s frequency, once you do, you’ll find it thoroughly engrossing.

As a straight cisgender white man, I find myself ill-equipped to unpack “Random Acts of Flyness” in greater depth. There are reference points to African-American culture to which I simply do not have access. However, my personal lack of experience and context didn’t prevent me from enjoying it. This is a bold, challenging and powerful show that is well worth the time.

“Random Acts of Flyness” airs Fridays at midnight on HBO.

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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