Terence Nance Is Conquering Hollywood with the Power of His People
The creator of 'Random Acts of Flyness' has a bold vision of blackness that revolutionized TV in 2018—and he's just getting started.
It seems like Terence Nance does everything in a communal style. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised earlier this fall when the creator of HBO’s critically-acclaimed Random Acts of Flyness suggested that we eat at Bunna Cafe, an Ethiopian spot in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where we shared one big plate of sourdough injera and shiro stews.
I wanted to speak with the lanky 36-year-old, who has extra inches thanks to a billowy afro, about how he’s managed to write, direct, and act in a show that has shattered limitations placed around black creativity at time when Hollywood is still trying to push white savior films.
His explosive, darkly funny show touches on everything from black masculinity and police violence to polyamory and conspiracy theories, all in a twisted stream-of-consciousness style that can be triggering, enlightening, and reaffirming at the same time. The show has aired a Jon Hamm–hosted infomercial for “White Be Gone,” a montage arguing that prestige shows like The Sopranos inspired the alt-right, and a first-person shooter game centered around street harassment. For this kind of dizzying, socially conscious creativity, Nance has been hailed as an “indescribable,” “bold new voice in experimental cinema.” Alongside peers like Jordan Peele and Barry Jenkins, his ascendance on his own terms has helped make it clear to young black creatives like myself that a new age is afoot, where you don’t have to tap dance or toe the line. And he’s just getting started. HBO renewed Random Acts of Flyness for a second season, and Nance was just tapped by Black Panther director Ryan Coogler to direct Space Jam 2, which will star Lebron James and is expected to begin filming in 2019.
For a multi-hyphenate who hob-knobs with black royalty like Solange and is breaking new ground in television, Nance was endearingly modest when we met for dinner in October of last year. In fact, he pushed back on the mystique he’s developed as an eccentric trailblazer. But he is one, spouting a blunt diagnosis of race issues in Hollywood and fluidly explaining his big-picture beliefs like the idea that blackness is evolving away from a binary to whiteness. His casually radical demeanor mimicked the take-it-or-leave-it style of his show. And it soon became clear that his confidence is that of someone who’s buoyed by a strong community of black thinkers.
“My success is not a result of my individual railing against white supremacy,” Nance said. “I’m part of an interconnected community, and we’re all confronting a lot of this together. I am where I am because of systems that have been gestating and growing. I contribute to it when and where I can. But that community—this community—is larger than me.”
This commitment to community is likely an outgrowth of Nance’s upbringing in an interconnected network of black artists and performers. Terence’s father, Norvis Nance, is a local news cameraman in Dallas with a penchant for photography. And his mother, Vickie Washington-Nance, is an actress who still has a busy play rehearsal schedule. In the late 70s, she traveled across the Southwest with a black theater troupe that existed for about a decade called the Afro-American Arts Alliance, and she brought Nance and his three siblings to her rehearsals. Growing up, he saw alternative black films like Daughters of the Dust and Sankofa when they played in Dallas, long before he had an inkling that he wanted to make his own films. “They may not have been really hearing it and knowing what it was,” Washington-Nance told me over the phone, as she reflected on the art and people she exposed her kids to in their formative years, “but it courses through their veins.”
His mom also performed alongside icons of black creative freedom Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, when the iconic couple came to Texas to film their free-wheeling variety show With Ossie and Ruby (1980–1982) for PBS. Celebrity guests who thrived at the intersection of art and activism like James Baldwin and Gil Scott-Heron would flock to Dallas every week to appear on the show, which was comprised of a hodge-podge of comedy skits, music performances, and intellectual conversations. The couple was also committed to making the show feel like a non-hierarchical family affair, as Washington-Nance is still connected to a number of people from the experience. Interestingly, Nance saw With Ossie and Ruby for the first time months after shooting Random Acts and said it’s one of the closest things he’s aware of to Random Acts in regards to the creative freedom wielded by the titular hosts. “All of my children are keenly aware of how our culture and our arts can be used to do wonderful things for and with the community and how important it is for people that our cultural artists be with the community to tell our stories,” Washington-Nance said.
Embracing the cooperative artistic spirit Nance saw as a child, he co-founded a creative collective called The Fly Movement in 2005 with his friend James Bartlett while he was studying visual art at NYU. They started out making T-shirts and eventually began producing music videos, shorts, EPs, and Nance’s first foray into feature film. “From the second he and I moved to New York, we knew we were never going to get ‘job jobs,’ and it was just a matter of manifesting what we wanted to bring into the universe,” Bartlett told me.
At dinner, Nance reiterated that idea. “We were all always talking about ‘How do we make this happen?’ ‘What are you doing to make this happen?’ There was never a feeling that it wasn’t going to happen,” he explained as he pulled more injera.
But his creative community didn’t just stop with his friends at school. From his earliest film projects, he made sure everything he did was a family affair. In 2009, when he directed a documentary about Hurricane Katrina refugees in Dallas called “No Ward,” he chose to only interview people who were an extension of his family network. This added the logistical difficulty that he couldn’t just interview anyone he came across, but it personalized the film in an incredible way. Terence’s 31-year-old brother who now writes for Random Acts, Nelson Mandela Nance, said, “He had me doing sound, my dad doing video, connecting with people that we knew from New Orleans that had moved and other people who our family knew from New Orleans.” Nelson brought up the film as a key example of who his brother is, saying, “That was a very necessary experience to keep it as community oriented as possible as opposed to it being a production. You feel me?”
The film is laced together with intimate family moments like a baby walking for nearly the first time while an off-camera voice explains the child took his first steps once he got to Texas, suddenly turning the home movie-esque clip into a larger metaphor. While some interviewees mourn the loss of their homes and material things, it’s touching to know that the project doubled as a way of connecting participants to a new kind of family network.
Nance’s acclaimed debut feature film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, took these kinds of cooperative efforts to new heights, turning heads in the industry with its undeniable power. It started in 2006 as a project for an NYU graduate class with no budget. Nance’s goal was to use repetitive visuals to convey the feeling of a cyclical, unrequited love. But it quickly evolved. “I thought it would be like five minutes long,” Nance said chuckling. When he showed what ended up being a 54-minute video in class, “People were like, ‘You just showed a feature film what is this?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, did I?’”
He spent the next five years adding a host of different animations with the free help of dozens of talented friends and generous souls he reached out to around the world, turning it into a full feature with a medium-transversing style that goes from claymation to video to animation. That style would eventually become an essential hallmark of Random Acts too, which he first came up with the idea for while working on the film. Though Nance himself was just learning animation at the time, there was nothing half-baked about it. “It was a Terence by any means necessary production,” Bartlett said as he recalled finessing to use space at the MoCADA museum and copying thousands of Nance’s hand-drawn animation slides after hours. The film opens on a seemingly endless credit reel acknowledging everyone who contributed to the project. The first time I saw it late last year, feeling curious to know more about the creator behind Random Acts, the opening made me wonder if there was a mini-movement behind the film’s creation.
The movie is an incredibly vulnerable, self-interrogating retelling of a relationship that missed its window of opportunity, acted out by Nance and the actual woman the story is about, Namik Minter. In one memorable unscripted scene, the intimacy of their body language leaning on one another in bed conveys the film's central point that there is an unspoken link between them even as she reiterates his love is unrequited. It's the kind of powerful scene that he could only get by filming with people from his life he shares a real connection with.
When he premiered the cinematic collage at Sundance in 2012, it made a splash, with publications like The New Yorker saying it was “alive with the richness of thought itself” and The Washington Post calling it “a daring approach to a universal subject.” After Jay Z saw it, he came on as an executive producer.
As community oriented as his projects had been up until An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, it wasn’t until 2014 that Nance met his most important collaborator to date—his romantic partner Naima Ramos-Chapman, who would go on to have an intimate, outsized influence on Random Acts. Back then Ramos-Chapman was in a rough place in her life—she’d just moved from Washington DC to New York City, where she was born and raised, because she was disillusioned with her career in political journalism and research advocacy. A bunch of her friends told her she should link up with Nance, because he reminded them of her. Intrigued by his creative output, she decided to profile him for Solange Knowles’s art and culture website, Saint Heron (although she didn’t end up writing it). The interview was only supposed to last about 45 minutes, but they spent more than four hours talking on a winter afternoon in Nance’s Bed-stuy Brooklyn apartment. He told her about his work and she told him about her interest in rekindling her creative talents as an actress and dancer. At the end of their first conversation ever, he invited her to come to Boston with him the very next day to stand on a frozen lake for a Nick Hakim music video. Naturally, she complied.
Hearing her complaints about the lack of quality roles for black actresses, Nance suggested she just make her own film. “He made it sound very accessible and easy. He’s like write what’s in your head and then this is the next step,” she told me. Their burgeoning creative relationship gave Ramos-Chapman the support she needed to create her deeply personal first short film And Nothing Happened, where she recounts the disorienting aftermath of being assaulted by a club bouncer in Washington, DC, months before she met Nance. He appears in the short and executive produced it.
“He already had a lot on his plate, but that’s the kind of person he is. There are a lot of great filmmakers in Brooklyn who he’s helped in some kind of background capacity. And everyone who works on Random Acts, we’ve all helped each other on different projects because it’s an expensive endeavor and you need community to get it done.”
While Nance was plugging away on shorts, collaborations, and mentoring, a friend of his he met through teaching art at Harlem Children’s Zone, Tamir Muhammad, was launching an incubator program with Time Warner 150 to support filmmakers who would traditionally have a hard time making it in the industry. First, Muhammad asked Nance to try his hand at a news show. Instead, Nance came back to him with the show concept he had written down in graduate school that would evolve into Random Acts of Flyness. It was centered around questions that divide black people and Nance’s love for the anything-goes nature of late night TV. With the support of Time Warner 150, Nance put together a 15-minute pilot that weaved together some new and older work from his shorts. After sending it around to a few different networks, HBO (which is owned by Time Warner) offered them more funds to make the full 30 minute pilot.
The final pilot included a memorable segment, “Everybody Dies,” which was shepherded by Nuotama Bodomo, a friend from Nance’s NYU days who has since gone on to make her own mind-boggling films like “Afronauts,” the story of a group of Zambian scientists who tried to race America to the moon in 1969. Bodomo’s film Collective: Unconscious was the origin of the “Everybody Dies” segment, but in the context Random Acts of Flyness, its jarring theatrical interpretation of emotionally processing police violence set a tone that the show would tackle light and heavy topics however directors saw fit. Together, all the parts created an explosive sense of unpredictability.
HBO greenlit the show in June, giving Nance less than a year to make six more episodes—with no creative interference.
When corralling writers for the show, he kept it close to home as usual with his brother Nelson, his partner Ramos-Chapman, and other visionary filmmakers from the black indie circuit like Bodomo that he’s known for years.
“It was a huge shifting of ego to make this show and that’s very rare,” Ramos-Chapman said. “To have all these people who want to make their own projects say ‘Hey, we’re going to all hang out and make something together and not worry so much about whose it is because the goal is so much bigger than the individual’ is very special.” In October 2017, the writers started meeting at Nance’s apartment in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, talking all day about anything on their mind. “Aside from it feeling like every day friends getting together, knowing we have an objective at the end of the day, it’s hard to describe what it was other than a privilege,” Nance said. “It’s a thing you always dream about to be able to pay yourself to sit down with your friends and talk about ideas.”
According to Ramos-Chapman, the guidance Nance gave them went something like this, “‘Let’s decenter the oppressor. What are the questions we have for ourselves, and all the different identities we house, in queerness, in blackness, in thinking about blackness being expansive? There’s no place you can’t go in this show.’ ... ‘Don’t think about this being a television show in a traditional way. We can just make whatever we want to make. What would that be?’”
Throwing out anything on their mind, Ramos-Chapman brought up topics like her dreams and Cardi B’s hand movements. They spent countless hours going down YouTube and Instagram rabbit holes. And the diverse sources they pulled from made newer writers like Nelson feel more at ease among people whose work he admired. “It was like there’s this big thing we’re working on,” he told me, “but also we need to not forget about the humanity that makes up all of our existence, because that is what the show is about—the entirety of us.”
Aside from bringing on new writers, Nance and the other directors also tapped a number of first time actors from their network, like artist and poet Diamond Stingily, who played a woman downloading her consciousness to a cloud in the finale; and sculptor and tattoo artist Doreen Garner, who was Nance’s co-host for the faux-talk show “Sexual Proclivities of the Black Community” segment. They also tapped painter and VICE contributor Theresa Chromati to turn her paintings of black women with mouths for vaginas into an animated woman that takes her overstimulated heart to a zen river comically accompanied by her talking vagina. “Some people want to make shows about their community, but this was really about making a show with your community," Ramos-Chapman said. "Some of the people that got involved never really saw themselves in television, but what is television? It’s just like anything else and I think the show proves that.”
The result was an explosive first season that touched on topics running the gamut from the trans experience to the criminalization of black hair, brought to life in dramatically different mediums. And it was all executed by a diverse and talented group that only Nance could have culled together.
Because Nance constructed the show to amplify so many different black voices at once, it manages to explore contentious topics without telegraphing a clear opinion or takeaway. Nance told me this was by design. “[I wanted every moment to have] the ability to transcend the normal paths around (popular) conversations, which is typically ‘I agree with that or I don’t and here is why.’ Hopefully by finding new ways to talk about not only one thing but all the things at the same time … it kind of scrambles people’s initial reaction.”
By capturing the anxieties of his community and the unique way they processes the world together in the show’s stream-of-consciousness style, Random Acts was the first of its kind on a mainstream platform to prod a subconscious experience of blackness. It’s yet another way his focus on community has helped expand the social function of his projects because that subconscious connection, in Nance’s view, is a key aspect of what pushes the black community forward. “The utility of blackness is a culture of technology. It was innovated to ensure survival. It’s a cultural thing, an emotional, spiritual continuance,” he said quickly with a certain familiarity like he’s explained this before. “(Blackness) is about expansion and survival and thriving in a way that’s not just physical. It’s about a metaphysical survival.”
Occasionally, the show’s approach to depicting a black psyche results in scenes that are downright disturbing. That's partly because Nance corralled a group of contributors that each value pushing past their own comfort zones in their work and they used the show as an opportunity to address issues that have gnawed at them for years. Sexual assault in the black community is a prime example. It pops up throughout the first season, and dominates the show’s daunting second episode.
The fact that sexual assault is a recurring theme is no accident. Instead, it’s an outgrowth of the real experiences impacting the people in Nance’s community. “I’ve always had a very acute awareness that we’re living in a pandemic of sexual molestation and sexual violence, but I didn’t always understand the extent to which those traumas play out over people’s whole lives.” When I asked if he knew someone growing up who had been assaulted he responded, “I almost didn’t know anybody who hadn’t been through that.”
In one powerful scene from the second episode, which was written and directed by Ramos-Chapman, a woman attempting to report a sexual assault to the authorities is asked to “turn in her pussy” by a burnt-out police officer played by Whoopi Goldberg. The woman ultimately has to rip off her vagina and place it in an evidence baggie and toss it onto a pile of hundreds of other “pussies” inside police headquarters. It’s a good example of how the show infuses fantastical elements with human turmoil and systemic failures to get at a greater truth. Though Goldberg makes the scene funny in a macabre sort of way, it’s incredibly hard to watch—or forget.
Behind the scenes, Nance encouraged Ramos-Chapman not to worry about how uncomfortable the audience might feel with this segment and just follow her own intentions. At the time she reported her own assault in Washington, D.C., she had to follow up repeatedly only to be told her assaulter would need more claims against him to be prosecuted. Ultimately, Ramos-Chapman chose to capture the discomfort of the situation in a way that is starkly different from the sexualized rape scenes and hysterical survivors we often see in films. “My style is asking more questions about sexual assault because I don’t actually know the answers. I just know [the way it’s typically depicted] isn’t it,” she said. “If we know this isn’t it, how can we envision an imagined place that gets us there even if we never get to that destination?”
What Ramos-Chapman is getting at is the quintessential mission of the entire show. As Nance told me, “We wanted scenes not to have any explicitly moral judgement on them… We were trying to push things as far and as fast as we could toward the irresolute.”
In the same way Nance has used collaboration to push his show into a space that is unpredictable and undefinable (just like he posits blackness is), he’s also attempting a similar feat with his own career. Nance isn’t just a producer, writer, director, and actor for Random Acts of Flyness, he’s also also an animator, a video game designer, and a musician. The week we met at Bunna Cafe he had just released his first song off of an upcoming EP which featured Nick Hakim. And during the process of writing the show, he helped get HBO to fund his brother Nelson’s first game, Kekubian Assasin, which tackles toxic masculinity. Interestingly, Nance doesn’t view these projects as divergent. When a Saint Heron interviewer asked him why he wore so many hats on the show, he simply said that “the hat I happen to have on when viewing from a capitalistic context seems like a lot of hats, but it’s really just one hat.”
But despite his insatiable creativity, Nance is frustratingly aware of the black performers before him who weren’t able to transition into new lanes. “Eddie Murphy was never able to self-determine and transition into a writer/director the way that Ben Affleck has. Even though arguably his talent as a writer/director/performer isn’t even in the same conversation. So it’s like, Why not? It’s not because he didn’t try. He wrote and directed Harlem Nights,” Nance told me, breaking from his mellow tone for a moment. “Or you hear someone like Don Cheadle talk about how hard it was to get Miles Ahead (the Miles Davis biopic) made. He’s on the record saying ‘I could not get the movie made without inventing a white character that did not exist and make him a co-lead of the movie.’ This is Don Cheadle. He’s in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.”
Nance spoke more passionately about them than his own experiences with racism in white Hollywood. When I asked if he ever had to abandon an idea because of closed doors, he playfully invoked the Teyana Taylor song “Rose in Harlem” saying, “If it ain’t about blessings, I can’t even address it.”
His production company MVMT, which grew out of his college collective The Fly Movement, now costs hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to operate, relying heavily on grants. Meanwhile, Ramos-Chapman and others in his close circle, especially womxn, still use Kickstarters for their projects. And Nance, as much as anyone in his community, is aware that despite how much he inspires young black creatives, his production company’s stride toward independence can’t help everybody. “The success of black filmmakers or collectives has not always consistently translated to other collectives in those generations or subsequent generations,” he said recounting the fleeting golden era of black 90s sitcoms and pointing out that Eddie Murphy’s success didn’t help “the Julie Dashes of the world.” He added, “I don’t think aesthetically we have to start from scratch because we’re always inspired by each other. But in terms of opportunities and institution building and elevating the work, platforms, and scaling the audience—we have to.”
With the long-view of this unfortunate history resurrected in front of us, I asked the optimistic community builder whether he thought his show really signals an era that will have a significantly different fate. After a slightly off-guard pause he said, “I hope so,” pointing to the positive ripple effect movies like Get Out and shows like Insecure and Atlanta have had on the viability of his show. “But also I think Random Acts is super specific to what our community is expressing,” he added. “So what the next person does will be as different from Random Acts as Random Acts is from all that other work... It's hard to say if something as weird as this will be successful, but I don't even know if that's valuable. It’s more valuable that people are given opportunities to do whatever they want to do. Whatever that may be—even if it is more ‘traditional’—as long as they’re given the freedom.”
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