Review

Shifting Consciousness: A Review of HBO’s “Random Acts of Flyness”

Black life is “surreal.” A word often synonymous with “dreamlike.” How apt a description. Like the sweetest dream, Blackness is a state of ethereal beauty and bliss. On the best, Blackest days, it’s like sleepwalking through a promised land of cocoa butter and honey to the tune of a vibrant, neo-soul beat. But like a nightmare, born of the deepest, darkest recesses of the mind—the place where buried, generational trauma dwells—it is also perilous and filled with horror. With bullets, brandings, and blood.

A complete depiction of Blackness—if such a thing could ever exist—would defy genre. It would be a romantic, hilarious, horrific, sci-fi infused, dystopian fantasy. The greatest historical drama never told. In short, I imagine it would be a bit like Terence Nance’s variety show “Random Acts of Flyness,” now on HBO and on your on-demand channel. A show I wouldn’t have thought possible until I saw it.

Random Acts of Flyness

Image courtesy of HBO.

The promotional art for the show came with a tagline delivered with all the gravity of a mission statement: “Shift Consciousness.” Across the span of the six-episode first season, Nance and his team do exactly that. Or rather, they give their viewers the tools they need to shift their own consciousness. If they’re willing to do the work, that is.

I’ve watched the first season, start to finish, three times now, but describing what “Random Acts of Flyness” is “about” is still a challenge. Not because the show lacks direction. Nothing could be further from the truth, as “Random” is a miracle of realized vision. But because, in a way, it’s about everything.

Everything Black. A word and identity that is far more expansive than it seems even Black people are willing to admit. In shifting consciousness, “Random Acts of Flyness” also shifts Blackness. Or, at least, it shifts the popular depictions of Black people, Black thoughts, and Black life toward a kaleidoscopic image more representative of reality. To do so, at times, the show leaves reality behind.

The first episode begins with cell phone camera footage, shot by a playful Nance as he rides his bike. An officer pulls up beside him in a squad car and tension mounts as a familiar scene begins to play out. It is a jarring callback to the many—too many—videos in recent years of police violence perpetrated on unarmed Black bodies. Like always, as viewers, we wait, anxiously for the inevitable—for harassment to become violence.

Murder.

But the familiarity ends there. The altercation takes a surprisingly surreal turn that I won’t spoil here. From that moment on, there is no turning back. The veil is lifted and we journey through the looking glass.

The show, in its themes and the myriad ways in which it addresses them, is as varied as Blackness itself. The first episode alone contains a talk show on Black sexuality and gender fluidity, a dramatization of worry No. 473 of “1000 Things a Black Man Shouldn’t Have to Worry About,” a musical performance in the jungle, a children’s game show where the grim reaper, a Black woman named Ripa, ushers murdered Black children into a hellish afterlife to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and so much more.

At times, “Random” is unflinchingly direct in its depictions of the horrors that dance, ever-present, around the periphery of Black life. Monsters that all too often take center stage. Like white racism, those moments deliver just as much terror as the inner workings of Stephen King’s mind, if not more. If “Random” is sometimes hard to watch, it is always impossible to look away from.

Random Acts of Flyness

Image courtesy of HBO.

There are two threads running through the entire show, stringing its eclectic musings together like beads: the open relationship of fictional Terence Nance and Najja, and the fallout of a sexual assault suffered by a Black woman at the hands of an unknown relative. These two stories develop over the course of the show, bit by bit, popping up between sketches. Though these storylines also have their share of surreal moments, for the most part they are home base. The ground in a show that plays out in the stratosphere of Nance’s imagination.

Living up there, in the upper atmosphere of a shifted Black consciousness, even for 40 minutes at a time, is not for everyone—but it is. “Random” is not passive television. Every moment, every image, every sound, and every action, no matter how seemingly random, is purposeful. Crafted, beautifully, to convey an intersectional, inter-dimensional message that not everyone can understand. Well, of course, they can understand if they’re willing to do the work. If they’re willing to think, to read, to research. To learn while they laugh. To critique while they cry. That’s where the show will lose some of you. If you let it.

Some of the more trippy, “shifted” and potentially confusing themes and visuals will be immediately relatable to certain viewers. Others, both white and Black, will struggle. But that’s the point. “Random” is about challenging everything you think you know. It’s also about spotlighting the intricate lives of the oppressed, not merely the crimes of the oppressor. At one point in the show, Nance pauses to remind himself to do just that.

“Random” takes its jabs at the villains but for the most part it says to hell with them. To hell with oppressors. Not just white oppressors in a racist system, but also sexist, homophobic, and transphobic oppressors. The show’s scope is broad, broader perhaps than any before because the spectrum of Black life is broad.

“Random Acts of Flyness” is the Blackest show on TV. Maybe the Blackest show ever. It is so beautifully, impossibly, Black because it does not try to define “Blackness.” It recognizes, instead, that Blackness is beyond definition. Blackness is euphoric. Blackness is tragic.

Blackness is male, female, and intersex. Blackness is non-binary. Blackness is gay, straight, bisexual, and everything between and beyond. Blackness is infinite.

Blackness is Random.

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