movie review

Neptune Frost Smirks at the Narrowness of Western Thinking

Saul Williams’s Afrofuturist, anti-colonialist film is a mission statement by way of a musical. Photo: Kino Lorber

Neptune Frost is a mission statement by way of a musical, and its defining image is a middle finger taking up the whole lens. In this audaciously vibrant tapestry of original songs, dance choreography, and poetic speeches, co-director, writer, and composer Saul Williams aims at myriad targets: at capitalism and resource mining, at Google and drone warfare, at all the systems that exploit the workers of the world while dividing it into “first” and “third.” The result is an Afrofuturist kaleidoscope of defiance that vibrates with neon hues, smirks at the narrowness of western thinking, and revels in collapsing the fourth wall with straight-into-the-camera statements like, “You think I don’t know that you’re bad and wrong?” If Neptune Frost sometimes feels too unwieldy, it’s only because Williams and Rwandan-born co-director Anisia Uzeyman refuse to tamp down either their ambition or their resentment. Both of those make Neptune Frost unforgettable.

To be alive is to try and find a way through the chaos of living, and Neptune Frost charts a path that tackles binary rigidity. Narratively, that means focusing on a number of individuals who travel through time and space to hack their oppressors and to take a stand against the exploitation of Rwanda, Africa (described lovingly here as “the hidden face of God”), and the larger global South. Visually, the film’s language includes dreamy sequences in which a mysterious character referred to as Wheel Man (Eric 1Key) — his headpiece of twirling spokes evoking angel’s wings — whispers “Hack” into the ears of sleeping acolytes, digital landscapes where bodies are rendered in dots and lines, and a character named Motherboard reveals their heart as a diamond-shaped crystal growing sprawling roots. Neptune Frost is like Williams and Uzeyman plugging a cable into their dreamscapes and capturing them for our provocation, and the impact is plucky and surreal.

The film is set in Burundi, where stark divides exist between various factions and where lines of authority are continuously reinforced: Police rough up university students and priests prey on their parishioners. In one corner of this country, Neptune (first played by Elvis Ngabo, then Cheryl Isheja) walks through verdant mountains in an attempt to find a place their intersex identity won’t be treated with disgust and judgment. In another area, miner Matalusa (Bertrand “Kaya Free” Ninteretse) witnesses company guards murder his brother and toss his body into the same rock quarry where they’re treated like slaves. That act of unanswerable violence inspires Mata to leave and join a group of hackers working to upend the status quo, including tech tinkerer Elohel (Rebecca Uwamahoro) and stalwart leader Memory (Eliane Umuhire). “It’s time we beat the code,” they vow, and when Neptune joins their group, that plan shifts into another plane.

Perhaps it’s a disservice to attempt to describe Neptune Frost in such a linear way when the film is so devoted to cinematographic and sonic experimentation within these pro-labor, anti-colonialist outlines. In capturing the “alone but not alone” grief lament that the miners, decked out in a rainbow of jumpsuits, sing in response to the death of Mata’s brother, Uzeyman’s camera pans across the guards’ planted feet and cocked guns — illuminating the tension between the powerful and the powerless. When a paint-splattered pigeon named Frost travels through portals to bring messages back to Memory, we float alongside it, sometimes in view of a purple crescent moon, sometimes in view of an Earth we are no longer upon. And Cedric Mizero’s costumes mirror the film’s integration of the earthly and the robotic via strikingly bold mashups of discarded computer parts and traditional African designs, like a top made of thousands of keyboard keys, the chest piece and eyeglasses crafted from disks and chips, and face coverings made of twisted and coiled wire that evoke ritual masks.

All of these are component parts of Williams and Uzeyman’s goal to reject boundaries of all kinds, and the film’s soundscape (which pulls from Williams’s 2016 album MartyrLoserKing) might be the most essential. Song structures include poetic non sequiturs, call and response, rapped sections, and spoken word, various forms combining into simultaneous self-expression and protest. Neptune and Mata reveal their dreams and their fears in these musical interludes, which sometimes serve the larger narrative and sometimes exist just for spontaneity’s sake — as if there was just one more thing Neptune Frost had to get off its chest. “After this life, there is another life, and hope,” a sexually abusive priest piously, hypocritically says early in Neptune Frost, but the film refuses to wait for such absolution. Rarely has a film felt so grounded in the present and in the immediate action this moment requires.

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Neptune Frost Smirks at the Narrowness of Western Thinking