'White People Won't Save You' And Other Gems From The Mind Of Terence Nance

The "Random Acts of Flyness" creator discusses his expressive approach and making counter-propaganda for white savior tropes.

The mind of Terence Nance is like no other. 

His work is an Afrofuturist’s dream that holds a mirror up to present-day reality and forces it to confront itself in an abstract, yet fitting, manner. It serves hard truths you can’t look away from, and it does so in the blackest way ever. 

HBO recently renewed Nance’s series, “Random Acts of Flyness,” for a second season. The show, which premiered in August, interrogates the way we view race, gender, romance, trauma and oppression through vignettes, weaving in and out of darkness and humor (and often dark humor) to do so.

It gets real in the most surreal ways. It’s a show born of unapologetic free black expression. It doesn’t adhere to the boundaries society aims to place on non-white art. Instead, it tears them down and dances around them as if they had a chance in the first place. To Nance and his team, that expression was second nature.

“The show is, whether or not it feels like it, the most natural and easy kind of creative expression that we could come up with,” Nance told HuffPost at CultureCon in New York City in October. “I don’t think it was in any way us trying to be strange or radical or provocative in any substantive way. I think that the reality is that [HBO] wanted to do this show because they wanted to see what our most natural state was in that way.”

Scenes in the first season include a woman’s natural hair getting arrested for being “bad,” an ancestry service that connects black people with the white people who owe them reparations, an artificial intelligence service that prevents you from staying too woke, a trans man discussing the utility of gender and the power of affirming his masculinity, and several instances of Nance himself getting stopped and questioned by a cop while filming. 

“Random Acts of Flyness” has proved to be more than a show; it’s an experience that offers extensions to the content it provides on the television screen. An example of that is a website exclusively dedicated to calling out the white savior trope in film, Upon visiting the site, one is given the option to play a roughly half-hour video in which scenes from popular American cinema play (including “Glory,” “Avatar” and “The Help”) as a choir repeatedly sings “White people won’t save you,” in an almost haunting way. Nance described this as a piece of “counter-propaganda.”

″[There’s a] common lexicon for how to propagandize this idea that white people will save you and are inherently equipped, culturally and emotionally, to save black people, Asian, people of color generally,” Nance told HuffPost.

He emphasized Hollywood’s influence, noting that the implication of these tropes “bears out in what type of decisions we make when we vote for people, when we watch certain shows, when we support certain types of white people or cave for certain types of white people.”

“It’s based in a idea that white people have an inherent desire to, in a self-sacrificial way, commit acts of heroism on our behalf,” he continued. “It is counterproductive, and even masochistic, to conduct your life in a way that believes that or assumes that. It’s really just trying to propagandize the opposite so that you can live in truth and hopefully make better decisions in terms of your relationships with black people and white people. Just people in general. Especially decisions that affect your life from a sociopolitical standpoint.”

Dating back to his debut feature, “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty,” Nance has had a knack for challenging the way audiences think about identity and the “subjectivity of truth.”

When asked if he thinks his work is ahead of its time, Nance said no.

“Kind of the heart of that question is: Is the stuff I’m talking about ... is culture ready to process it in the way [we] intend? I don’t think that there’s any kind of way of really knowing that, because the meaning of anything that you make changes contextually with time in a way you can’t determine, so whether or not people can understand the reference points, it’s not a function of if they’re watching it now, like today or a hundred years from now. It’s just a function of what they come to.

“I think what I’m trying to say is sort of not as important as how it makes people feel.”