This review of “Neptune Frost” was first published on Jun 2, 2022, before it opened in New York City.
Behold one of the most extraordinarily original cinema experiences of the year: Pulsing with a revolutionary heart, “Neptune Frost,” from co-directors Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman (credited on screen as SWAN), indicts the advent of technological advancements that thrive on ignoring the people whose suffering and displacement make those advancements possible.
Grounded on ancestral wisdom while innovative in its imagery, this Afrofuturistic musical flips off neocolonialism, manifested as labor exploitation and the extraction of resources to supply the world with digital communication; miners of coltan, a metal used in the creation of modern technology, are expendable for the capitalist powers of the world.
In this temporally undefined future, Burundi, an East African nation, exists under the rule of the Authority, a tyrannical government that suppresses student protests and manipulates the media to maintain control and continue to collaborate with the imperialist West. For practical and security reasons, the film was shot in the neighboring country of Rwanda, also Uzeyman’s homeland, with a combination of Burundian and Rwandan artists.
To physically express the fluidity of gender, Neptune, the intersex protagonist of this propulsive tale, is first played by male actor Elvis Ngabo, and later, for the larger portion of the story, by Cheryl Isheja, a woman. The other part of this equation, Matalosa (Bertrand Ninteretse), is a miner whose brother died on the job. Both have decided to leave their respective villages and will be brought together by a dream in an otherworldly interface.
Economical with their use of VFX, the filmmakers harness a recognizable reality of lush landscapes embellished with futuristic flourishes from repurposed computer parts, which organically fuse the tangible with the digital. Uzeyman served as the project’s cinematographer, capturing the stirring sequences where a collection of multitalented performers embodies the spirit of rebellion through their determined chants.
Uzeyman collaborated with Cedric Mizero, a Rwandan artist, on the production design, while Mizero crafted the eye-popping, yet ergonomically elegant costumes that both heroes and antagonists (the police) wear. Noticeable accessories and face coverings also made from discarded technology, some more pronounced than others, decorate the bodies on screen, many of whom own a luminous diamond-shaped handheld device — a cellphone, evolved.
Eventually, following a series of encounters with other individuals that further contextualize the plight of the majority, Neptune crosses an invisible threshold to reach Matalusa (whose name is a word play on “martyr” and “loser”). He’s joined a group of hackers and his former coworkers at the mine who plan revolt against the perpetuated injustice, but they need Neptune, who can manipulate the internet in their favor.
As we cross the firewall into an intangible virtual realm, visualized as vibrant flashes of light that take over the screen building shapes and texts, the measured ambition of the project takes on a more immersive aesthetic. At the root, “Neptune Frost” can be described as a love story, not in the traditional romantic sense, but rather as the union between the long-abused workforce coordinated with the powerful reach of online action.
Neptune represents a bridge that will take their real-world concerns, dismissed for centuries, and put them in front of those who benefit from their pain without being subjected to any of the same atrocious side effects, making it impossible for them to turn away. With a necessary earnestness, the acting and vocal renditions that populate “Neptune Frost” feel collaborative in that even Isheja, the lead, shines brighter when in the group.
Loaded with references to issues affecting the developing world in general and the African continent specifically (migration, homophobia, war), the dialogue that characters exchange throughout, written in poetic prose, broadens our understanding of the filmmakers’ explorations. Likewise, the lyrics and rhymes in the furious songs seamlessly transcend language — native tongues like Kirundi and Kinyarwanda, as well as English and French.
Evidently, the vehicle for most of these potent lines to get across is music: the one abundant, communally conceived and replenishable resource. Industrial sounds, jazzy melodies and percussions comprise the sonically saturated instrumental pieces that underscore the action or accompany the verses. Given his storied career as a musician, Williams excels in this territory. That each of the two co-auteurs gets to so brilliantly exhibit their most developed talents speaks of the strength of their artistic fusion.
In scene after scene, the global implications of the film’s searing declarations pile on like an avalanche of inconvenient truths portrayed in striking fashion. Williams and Uzeyman’s vigorous vision joins other recent titles from countries across Africa that marry genres, blending elements of various mythologies to address current affairs in an imaginative manner: “The Burial of Kojo” (Ghana), “Night of the Kings” (Ivory Coast), “Atlantics” (Senegal), “This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection” (Lesotho).
For all of the film’s ideological richness, what “Neptune Frost” discusses is far from impenetrably abstract. The directors not only hack cinema, a medium historically dominated by white storytellers, to make a statement, but they also reposition its lens to center a fresh crop of artistic voices in a mesmerizing battle cry of a film set to the inextinguishable beat of the drums.
“Neptune Frost” opens Friday in select Los Angeles theaters.