By Nicole Veneto
This Afrofuturist cyberpunk musical is a sprawling political manifesto poetically transcribed into a visual symphony of music and images.
Neptune Frost, opening today at the Quad and BAM in NYC. In theaters nationwide including LA on June 10 and at Cambridge’s Brattle Theatre on June 17. Streaming from July 3.
Neptune Frost, the enigmatic feature debut from New York-based slam poet Saul Williams and Rwandan actress/playwright Anisia Uzeyman, is as inventively beautiful as it is difficult to decipher. It’s the kind of film that merits repeated and closely attentive rewatching in order to be properly digested by Western (and especially non-Black) audiences. A sprawling political manifesto poetically transcribed into a visual symphony of music and images, Neptune Frost debuted at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival and has since screened at TIFF, Sundance, and other international festivals around the world, notable as one of the achingly few African-made films to tour the Western film festival circuit in the last several years.
Best described as an Afrofuturist cyberpunk musical, Neptune Frost loosely follows two social outcasts who traverse into a transdimensional hacker compound and forge a cosmic connection so powerful it produces its own wireless network. After his brother Tekno (short for Technology) is murdered by an overseer while working the coltan mines, Matalusa (rapper Kaya Free, a.k.a. Bertrand Ninteretse) sojourns to an anticolonial encampment in the Burundi hilltops to fulfill a divine destiny — to lead an anticapitalist hacker collective and “hack” into the structures of power that oppress and exploit them, their labor, and their resources for Western technological posterity. Elsewhere, Neptune (initially played with striking tranquility by Elvis Ngabo), an intersex runaway fleeing sexual violence at home, undergoes an Orlando-esque gender transformation into the beautiful Motherboard (Cheryl Isheja) upon arriving at the compound. Connected by shared visions of technological emancipation, Matalusa and Neptune instantly form a bond capable of generating power throughout the enclave. This digitally borne love fuels a viral workers’ revolution against the region’s authoritarian government (simply called “The Authority”) that reverberates throughout time, space, and different states of being.
Though Neptune Frost is Saul Williams’s first outing as a director, the multidisciplinary artist already boasts an impressively versatile resume. He’s a modern Renaissance Man in every sense of the term: a spoken-word poet turned musician turned actor who’s worked alongside The Coups’ Boots Riley (director of Sorry to Bother You) and Janelle Monae (whose album Dirty Computer was turned into an Afrofuturist short film of the same name), Williams seems poised to join his aforementioned peers as a vanguard of politically charged Black art. You’ll nonetheless be shocked to see Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ezra Miller’s names pop up in the credits as executive producers; Miranda’s made a career out of Hamilton’s corny historical revisionism and Miller has spent much of 2022 terrorizing the people of Hawaii.
Originally conceived as a graphic novel and tie-in musical, Neptune Frost is one part of a greater multimedia venture Williams has been working on since 2013, The MartyrLoserKing Project. In essence, the film hews closer to a visual album than a proper narrative feature, presenting a smorgasbord of ideas, themes, and political philosophies explored throughout Williams’s work. Co-director and cinematographer Anisia Uzeyman translates Williams’s ideological oeuvre into a distinctive visual language, resembling an amalgamation of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s anticapitalist magical realism with the avant-garde trappings of ’70s science-fiction art films, particularly Sun Ra’s visionary Space Is the Place.
Surprisingly, neither Williams nor Uzeyman set out to make Neptune Frost a consciously Afrofuturist film. “It never crossed our minds,” Williams said in an interview for Okayplayer, “We were just talking about shit we want to see [in cinema].” Based on Williams’s accompanying director’s statement, this rebuke of the Afrofuturist label may have a little something to do with a certain Marvel movie popularizing a vision of Afrofuturism considerably diluted of its anticolonial political roots. Williams (rightly) criticizes the idea that “the formulaic aesthetic that births reality stars and super-heroes alike takes its cues from a cultural mythos that is more invested in the bottom line than illuminating the rot at the bottom.”
That “bottom line” is none other than capitalist profitability, historically fulfilled through the brutal exploitation of “Third World” countries and peoples for the sheer sake of technological advancement. Natural resources native to African nations, such as the coltan ore that Matalusa mines, are used to manufacture cell phones, laptops, and other 21st-century technological wonders we Westerners take for granted. We are completely oblivious to the underlying “rot” of human suffering from which they spring. As one character explicitly states, “We’re worth the value of every mineral.” Neptune Frost places this reality front and center in a way no Marvel movie would ever dare to (unless it’s with the CIA’s cooperation of course).
Speaking of which, if you also find your eyes sliding to the back of your skull whenever you’re subjected to intangible CGI effects and green-screened sets/costumes/props/people, then Neptune Frost is sure to keep your focus in place. Shot on location in Burundi, Uzeyman’s cinematography makes the most out of the region’s breathtakingly gorgeous landscapes, presenting them as both deeply naturalistic and otherworldly. Scenes are lit according to how colored lighting reflects off dark skin, bathing actors in various shades of red, blue, purple, and green. Costume designer Cedric Meziro turns everyday objects into upcycled couture fashion statements, such as a blazer bedecked with buttons from a desktop keyboard. Tanya Melendez’s hair and makeup looks give the Euphoria teens a run for their money, effortlessly highlighting the beauty of Black skin with Day-Glo eyeliner and lovingly placed gemstones.
As refreshingly audacious as Neptune Frost is, I did find the plot incredibly hard to follow for the first 45 minutes. This seems to be an editing problem more than anything else, evidenced by an especially jarring jump cut between two different takes of the same scene later in the film, noticeably teleporting one of the actors from one side of the screen to the other in a split second. Tighter continuity editing and more transitional shots between scenes would really benefit the overall flow of the story. Had I seen this in the theater without the benefit of a screener copy to rewind, I would have walked away convinced that Neptune and Matalusa were actually the same person. The abruptness with which the film suddenly ends also left me somewhat underwhelmed, although what it achieves within the span of 105 minutes is extremely impressive for a feature debut.
Perhaps Neptune Frost overloads itself at the expense of narrative clarity, but one moment in particular stands out to me like nothing else in the film. A still male-presenting Neptune boards a boat and takes a pair of high-heels out of their knapsack to slip onto their feet. It is a small moment of personal joy in the midst of a perilous journey, a beautiful celebration of gender transgression made all the more powerful considering intersex people are practically invisible in society and cinema alike. Neptune Frost is a movie for invisible people, a celebration of resilience, and a call to arms for the downtrodden of the world, be they Black, impoverished, intersex, or all three.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. She’s the co-host of the new podcast Marvelous! Or, the Death of Cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter @kuntsuragi as well as on Substack.