Race's Delightful Confusion in HBO's "Random Acts of Flyness"
As I was flipping through series on HBO to try to find a show to watch during a late afternoon lunch break, I stumbled upon a jarringly odd icon--a man with a child on his shoulders, the child covering the man's eyes, the man grasping the child's hands, a disembodied pair of hands covering the child's eyes, and each figure sporting an uncovered third eye in the center of their foreheads. Out of curiosity, I clicked.
What followed was the beautiful assault of the first episode Terence Nance's "Random Acts of Flyness", a self-described "late night sketch" series that "explores evergreen cultural idioms such as patriarchy, white supremacy and sensuality from a new, thought-provoking perspective" (HBO website). The show is a series of short vignettes, each shockingly different from the next in their subject, style, tone, and frame. My lunch got cold as I watched a macabre parody of a 1970s public TV children's show in which the host, Ripa the Reaper, finds black children from around the world to usher towards death, switching from cheerily singing a song that reminds children that everyone dies to shoving children into death's door as they scream to quietly crying as she sings again on screen. I cringed and laughed at Jon Hamm's cameo in an infomercial about the disease of "acute viral perceptive albonitis," a dangerous disease that causes white thoughts such as "all lives matter" and can only be cured by rubbing a black substance, strikingly similar to blackface, on the afflicted person's temples. I was raptured by the glory of Terence Nance skyrocketing into the sky after a violent New York cop hit him with his car and chased him into a corner.
While my historical television knowledge is relatively limited, I dare claim that "Random Acts of Flyness" is unlike any other show on the air right now. It is daring, messy, unclean, joyful, doleful, and downright confusing. If you are looking for the comedic rendering of "We Will Overcome"-Whiteman'sMLK-Politics, you will be sorely disappointed. Ripa the Reaper ensures that you don't get a hopeful ending. She can't even end her own life to cope with the emotional weight of her position; when she tries to run through death's door (quite literally), she pops out the other door, looking at the camera resigned in her hopelessness.
If you are looking for a scathing critique of white supremacy from a militant perspective, you also may leave dissatisfied. While critique may be the main mode of the show, and the only element really holding its disparate pieces together, Nance refuses to give you a clean, wrapped-in-a-bow, these-are-good-those-are-bad style critique that one can often find in militant political rhetoric. He not just allows but encourages contradictions and problems to abound in the self-conscious style of Jon Hamm's skit or the self-filmed interaction with the police that bookends the show.
The first episode consists not only grotesque critiques of American racial politics and their effect on black life, however. It concludes with a sketch titled "The Sexual Proclivities of the Black Community," in which Nance and co-host Doreen Garner shine a spotlight on black bisexuality and the struggles with visibility that many black bisexuals experience. At this point, the audience has already been worn away by the free-wheeling gruesome melange of the show's previous sketches, and the honest, warm, and raw story told by an interviewee documents the pain of being unseen or eclipsed by sexual norms of American society.
My experience with "Random Acts of Flyness" was that whatever you wanted, you weren't going to get it. The show is not "unapologetically black" or "raw" or even the "exploration" of "evergreen cultural idioms" like race, gender, and identity (whatever the hell that means). The show is disorienting and confusing because quite frankly being black in America is disorienting and confusing, not to mention macabre, joyful, melancholy, sublime, and contradictory. Because it is unwilling to cater to a mainstream audience or take a traditional frame of reference in racial politics, "Random Acts of Flyness" allows the confusion of race to exist in its own fact of being. Dr. Du Bois once asked "What Is It Like to Be a Problem?" "Random Acts of Kindness" boldly replies: "Confusing as hell."
Want to know more?
NYT review of the show: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/01/arts/television/review-random-acts-of-flyness-terence-nance.html
New Yorker Review https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/08/27/the-raw-trip-of-random-acts-of-flyness
HBO's site page https://www.hbo.com/random-acts-of-flyness
Jon Hamm's sketch "White Thoughts" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6m0oMrMUiWQ)
Du Bois quote famously from The Souls of Black Folk (1903)