2020s

‘Neptune Frost’: Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams Project the Future

Co-directed by Saul Williams (who also wrote the screenplay and music) and Anisia Uzeyman (who also photographed and co-art directed), Neptune Frost recently made its way to a 2022 limited theatrical release via Kino Lorber following a 2021 Cannes premiere in the Directors Fortnight section of the festival. A vivid musical mashup blending science fiction with an emphatic political statement on the exploitation of African nations by American corporations greedy for the tantalum used in cell phones, computers, vehicles and cameras, the film makes for a visually and aurally arresting cinematic experience well worth seeking out.

Deeply committed to anti-capitalism and anti-colonialism, Neptune Frost introduces a handful of characters affiliated with a hacker collective operating on the fringes of safety and society within an oppressive police state. At the center of the cast is Neptune, a nonbinary runaway played by two actors: Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo. Neptune, who experiences an otherworldly connection to coltan, gets close to miner Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse), whose brother has been murdered while toiling for the precious ore. They interact with passionate disruptors like Memory (Eliane Umuhire) and Elohel (Rebecca Uwamahoro) to battle against the gross imbalance of the status quo.

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Most reviews have made a point to identify Neptune Frost with Afrofuturism, the descriptive term coined in 1993 by Mark Dery in his essay “Black to the Future.” Arguably more prominent in recorded music than in feature films, the concept experienced a mainstream surge with the massive success of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther in 2018. Ashley Clark, who curated the series “Space Is the Place: Afrofuturism on Film” for the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2015, writes in The Guardian that his choices for the program were “united by one key theme: the centring of the international black experience in alternate and imagined realities, whether fiction or documentary; past or present; science fiction or straight drama.”

Common to many musicals, the biggest ideas take precedence over intimate character-building; it is no surprise to see Lin-Manuel Miranda listed as one of Neptune Frost’s executive producers (Ezra Miller also produced, but given the performer’s ongoing woes, the less said about their participation the better). Williams originally conceived the film for the stage or even as a graphic novel. The music, which draws from his 2016 album MartyrLoserKing, is without question Neptune Frost’s strong suit and chief draw. The original costumes by artist and designer Cedric Mizero follow as a close second.

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Despite the film’s modest budget, the technological touches of the VFX enhance the aesthetic (I particularly enjoyed the aerial shots of the colorful pigeon called Frost taking wing to deliver important information). Neptune Frost challenges and frustrates, and often leaves one wishing for more clarity. But it is filled with poetry, and it understands the importance of projecting an alternative to our reality. The resolute commitment to experimentation and the weblike structure of the hyperlinked world deliberately disregard some of the narrative conventions that may be expected by less adventurous viewers. Williams and Uzeyman embrace, and even depend upon, the glitches that position their movie as an original.

Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is a professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.