The Radical, Exuberant Transformation of “Random Acts of Flyness”

The Radical, Exuberant Transformation of “Random Acts of Flyness”


In the first season of Terence Nance’s HBO series “Random Acts of Flyness,” from 2018, he makes use of the episodic nature of serial television to do what a narrative feature film can’t: by collaborating with other writers and directors, he creates a work of collective imagination that’s a vast collage of Black American experience. The new season, the first two episodes of which air Friday, is different. While extending his exploration of Black American life, Nance also expands the premise of his first (and, to date, only) feature film, “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty,” from 2012, which is a personal, romantic, and metafictional drama told in the first person, or, rather, in two first persons—by himself and by his real-life former partner—with a teeming array of formats and styles. The second season of “Random Acts” has a similarly intimate and intricate narrative framework, involving the personal and professional relationship of a filmmaker and musician named Terence Nance (played by Nance) and a video-game creator named Najja Freeman (Alicia Pilgrim).

Season 2 is no less collaborative than the first season—Nance directs only the first of the four episodes I’ve seen (there are six in total), and he’s the head writer (with Jamund Washington) of a raft of credited writers. But, this time around, the very nature of artistic collaboration comes under intense dramatic scrutiny, even as Nance develops an in-depth, visionary, and speculative exploration of Black life in the United States—and the results are as exuberantly imaginative as his earlier work. Combining modern-historical counterfactual fiction with animation, special effects, fantasies, and dreams, the second season is a work of music-like Afrofuturism, the closest thing I’ve seen to a cinematic reflection of the tones and moods of the music of Sun Ra, complete with the mythopoetic dimension.

As the story begins, Najja is the more active of the two artists. She’s completing a vast project for a company that’s run by a trio of faceless, but apparently white, men. Terence, who is recovering from some recent professional failures (one involves an app, another a movie), is a key part of Najja’s team, composing music for the game and helping her with a variety of side tasks. But their collaboration is fraught with what remains of their personal relationship. They’ve been a couple, but now Najja is romantically involved with another man, Xavier (Austin Smith), while still being, in some form, together with Terence (who, nonetheless, is moving his belongings out of Najja’s home).

The practicalities of these relationships are propelled, from the start, into metaphysical dimensions: in the visualizations of the disembodied game executives; the onscreen realization of the game sequences (including one that involves Najja chasing Terence, who is wearing a bunny costume, through the streets); interjected sequences that resemble commercials, music videos, and television programs; the insertion of extended animation scenes that deliver fables and allegories; and even the essence of Najja’s game, based on what she calls rituals, which invoke both her cultural imagination and her personal life. As that game, like the arc of the drama, leads toward a long-planned and elaborate birthday celebration for Najja’s mother, there’s also the question of who her mother is—and why she’s sometimes referred to as Najja’s sister.

Both Najja and Terence are working through trauma and emotional wounds. Where Najja’s quest has a fundamentally mythological dimension, an explicit element of what she calls “spirit work” involving her family, Terence’s work has a more directly political one: the app that he worked on is designed to yield economic reparations to the descendants of enslaved Africans. His activities involve an appearance on a TV show—a magical appearance on a rocky terrace high above a river—with a host (played by Tashiana Washington) who will “appraise” an object from his life that’s linked to his wounds. Both Terence and Najja offer diagnostic riffs on pop culture, recent and classic, with a particular emphasis on the figures and the tropes (and the cartoonish comedy) of Looney Tunes; these include a wild biographical portrait of a revised Bugs Bunny, who’s an employee of the studio that’s not Warner Brothers but Brother We Warned You.

The series employs large-scale magic: dancing fire figurines, flying characters, objects with wills of their own, video-game scenes as a part of street life, imaginary spaces of music and dance, elaborate costumes and sculptural effigies, riffy sidebars of documentary-like yet phantasmagorical montages filled with archival clips. These elements are matched by an equally original variety of fantasies that are fused with the show’s realistic drama. The series daringly renders the psychological dimensions and emotional overtones of seemingly ordinary scenes by way of inspired, hallucinatory audiovisual effects. Straightforward dialogue sequences of confrontations and arguments are expanded with echoing and overlapping voices, phantom presences; characters are multiplied and double-exposed and superimposed; faces are transformed, tinted, digitally masked. In such sequences, “Random Acts of Flyness” outleaps the specifics of the action to loom as a reproach to filmmakers who rigorously separate the cinema’s supernatural aspects from its naturalistic ones.

Though this second season is nominally a follow-up to the first, a title card, at the end of each of these four episodes, suggests the radical break that Nance has in mind: it reads “Random Acts of Flyness Program No. 2: The Parable of the Pirate and the King.” Though he isn’t the sole director, the visual consistency is provided by his longtime collaborator, the director of photography, Shawn Peters. (They’ve worked together on “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty,” Nance’s remarkable short films “Univitellin” and “Swimming in Your Skin Again,” and the first season of “Random Acts.”)

The spiritual quests of the new season are linked to the power of Black artistic creation, the reclamation of history, and the possibility of love. The show embraces the tones and moods of the church while also seeking to recover a specifically African heritage, and doing so by way of new aesthetic technologies (whether the ones that Najja and Terence deploy in their work or the ones that Nance and his collaborators bring to bear on the series itself). For all its sensory exuberance and inventiveness, the second season is suffused with an air of melancholy, of ecstatic grief. It dramatizes the characters’ rebuilding of damaged and tangled-up modern selves and lives confronting the past—and their search for the artistic means of doing so. In the process, it cinematizes a sort of spiritual archeology, a reckoning with places that embody a holy terror. The show reaches deep into the American heartland, in body and in spirit.