Avant-Garde Artist Terence Nance Discusses Black Identity and the Process of Filmmaking

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On Tuesday, November 20, Terence Nance, creator of the relatively new HBO show “Random Acts of Flyness,” came to Swarthmore to show and speak about some of his work and his life as an African-American filmmaker. He showed several clips of his older work, as well as two episodes of “Random Acts,” followed by a Q&A. Prior to “Random Acts” he was known for his debut feature film, “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012. He was also named a Guggenheim fellow in 2014. Nance’s appearance at Swarthmore and the screenings of his work are a part of a new Black film aesthetics series that will continue into the spring, so keep your eye out for similar events in the future.

Nance first showed a short film with the provisional title “They Charge For the Sun,” an imagining of a dystopian Earth on which the ability to go outside during the daytime is regulated and charged. It focused on the economic racial disparities that would inhibit Black people from accessing the very thing that created their Black skin in the first place, a disturbing and beautiful piece. This was followed by a short documentary about Sanford Biggers, an experimental African-American artist of many mediums, the form of the documentary reflecting the variety and unorthodox methods of the artist himself.

Finally, he showed the first two episodes of the first season of “Random Acts.” Every episode of the show is a collection of short scenes, both narrative and abstract, that touch on a number of themes under the umbrella of African-American identity. For example, the first episode contains a video captured on Nance’s phone of him being chased by an aggressive police officer while trying to introduce the show; a fake, though dark, sitcom titled “Everybody Dies;” a fake ad for a product labeled “White Be Gone,” that prevents “white thoughts;” and an interview with a bisexual Black man about the “sexual proclivities of the Black community.” It comes together with force, each episode forming a touching, provocative, and wholly unique experience. The show also presents a brazen display of Nance’s distaste for “linear-Grecian narratives,” an opinion he expressed strongly at the beginning of the Q&A.

Describing the process of creating the show and his other work, Nance stated that he mostly works with people he has been around his entire life, since his work requires that they “share the deepest part of themselves quickly.” When asked why he creates work in the form and subject matter that he does, Nance explained that he is trying to “channel more than make.” His goal is not to produce for the sake of producing, but rather be “used by the community.” To Nance, it is the community that determines what he makes, not him.

Nance stated that in the creation of his show he didn’t pay attention to what would be more palatable for a broad, racially diverse audience, simply focusing on achieving his vision and finishing the project. One student asked if he had worried about how consumable it would be as a result of this, since the majority of Americans are white. “I think of myself as a citizen of the world,” Nance replied, and he described his work as “hyper-consumable” in the context of the billions of Black people in the world. He further explained that some of the biggest resistance to the show had come from black women in reaction to a scene at the end of the second episode where two black men make out. Resistance to the show “doesn’t have to be a white thing,” he concluded.

Conversely, Nance brought up a negative aspect of the celebration of his work. He explained that often among white people there is a subtext of exotification in their praise of the show. Simply put, he said, a common reaction contains the sentiment, “that monkey can talk.”

In discussion of his show, Nance also acknowledged the extent to which he has benefited from fellow Black filmmaking visionaries. He titled this benefit, “The Issa Rae, Donald Glover effect.” Just as important to Nance, however, are those visionaries whose name one does not know. By no means does the existence of black filmmakers in the spotlight mean that the search and promotion of more is obsolete. “It’s easy to get inflated into a false sense of having overcome,” he said, when “there is an alarm rung” for the minimal number of Black voices that have had commercial success.

“Random Acts” was recently renewed for a second season, though Nance will also be directing the upcoming Space Jam sequel, an honor he has been falsely claiming since 2009 to the extent that eventually he was given the job. He is hugely excited. “I think it’s a unique opportunity to talk to Black kids,” he said, “to all of them at once”.


Featured image courtesy of swarthmore.edu

Larkin White

Larkin '22 is a writer from San Francisco who honestly has no idea what he is doing. He prefers cats to dogs, though dogs aren’t bad.

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