Recent years have seen a number of filmmakers of color finding commercial and critical success in a white-male-dominated field, but funding continues to be an uphill battle even for some of the most promising of those talents. Case in point: Terence Nance, whose debut feature, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, premiered to rave reviews at Sundance in 2012 and ultimately won a Gotham Award. Nance has spent the past six years making short films and music videos and trying to get a second feature off the ground, and as Barry Jenkins noted in an interview with Reggie Ugwu at the New York Times, “It doesn’t make any sense for a filmmaker who exhibited that skill set, in a film of that profile, to not have made a follow-up feature all these years later.”
Thankfully, we’re finally seeing new work from Nance, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. With Random Acts of Flyness, a half-hour stream-of-consciousness variety series that structurally resembles Monty Python’s Flying Circus or, to call up a more current example, The Eric Andre Show, Nance has finally found a format that can score financial backing, while at the same time showcasing his unique vision and talent. Following Friday’s midnight premiere, HBO has made the first of this season’s six episodes freely accessible online.
When Oversimplification, a rumination on unrequited love and an eclectic mix of live action and animation, opened in the UK in 2014, Ashley Clark wrote for Sight & Sound: “Hyperbolic adjectives such as dizzying, effervescent, kaleidoscopic and exhilarating spring to mind but don’t adequately convey the craft and persistence that have gone into this confessional slice of (semi) non-fiction.” As for Random Acts, Ugwu places the series in the vein of shows such as Issa Rae’s Insecure, Donald Glover’s Atlanta, and Justin Simien’s Dear White People in that it “distinguishes itself by prioritizing the cultural vernacular and subjective experience of black communities over the presumed gaze of white audiences.” For the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, it’s “also a crucial demonstration that the progressive political cinema is also inseparable from progressive aesthetic imagination.”
The series, which the NYT’s James Poniewozik calls “part video-art installation, part talk show, part dream anthology,” addresses the perpetually imminent threat of violence directed at black bodies and the racist assumptions deeply ingrained in white culture. Maya Phillips, writing at Slate, sees Random Acts joining the company of Atlanta and recent films like Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You as part of a resurgence of Afro-Surrealism, which “depicts the realities of contemporary black life through its intersections with the absurd and unlikely.” The original term Afro-Surreal Expressionism was coined by Amiri Baraka in his introduction to a 1974 collection of stories by Henry Dumas and then turned into a manifesto by D. Scot Miller in a piece that ran in the San Francisco Bay Guardian in 2009. Whichever school we assign it to, few works can, within just thirty minutes, whiplash so effectively between comedy and terror as Random Acts of Flyness.
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