Neptune Frost: an exuberant, deeply political afrofuturist musical

Directed jointly by Saul Williams and Rwandan filmmaker Anisia Uzeyman, this impassioned, imaginative, resourceful film spends its entire runtime thinking outside of the box.

Cheryl Isheja as Neptune in Neptune Frost (2021)

“Hack into land rights and ownership,” whispers a man with a bicycle wheel mounted to his back. The wheel spins behind him, spokes glowing; it looks like a pair of wings. This man is Potolo the Avatar (Eric Ngangare), visiting Neptune Frost’s two protagonists in a dream, encouraging them to “hack” into the very infrastructure of the capitalism that oppresses them. An angel of truth, or perhaps the devil on our heroes’ shoulders, he is playful and conspiratorial, a little like the poet Saul Williams, who co-directed the film.

Williams came up through the spoken-word poetry scene in New York, folding social commentary and a sly, anti-authoritarian streak into his art, music and writing. He co-wrote and starred in 1998’s Caméra d’Or-winning Slam, about a young Black poet dealing with a prison sentence. Neptune Frost is his first film as a director, and sees him co-directing with Rwandan filmmaker Anisia Uzeyman. It is a musical, and part of Williams’ MartyrLoserKing project, which also comprises three albums of music and a graphic novel centred around an East African miner-turned-hacker.

The film is set in Burundi, in the aftermath of war. Matalusa (Kaya Free) is a coltan miner who witnesses the killing of his younger brother by one of their bosses while they are both at work. Neptune (played by Elvis Ngabo and Cheryl Isheja), meanwhile, is intersex, and on the run following a sexual assault. The pair meet via a glitch, in another dimension: an e-waste site called ‘Digitaria’ that is home to a collective of hackers who lead the resistance. Comrades greet each other with the words “unanimous goldmine”, an acknowledgement of their cultural, political and spiritual capital. Through a series of musical numbers, we learn about the resistance and what exactly they are resisting.

Born in 1972, Williams would have come of age in the 1990s, and indeed there are parallels between the steampunk futurism he likely absorbed in that period, with its industrial wastelands and leather coats, and Digitaria, essentially a dump for prehistoric computer parts. The visual world that he and Uzeyman create has a homespun finish, with sets and costumes crafted from reclaimed and recycled materials. In Digitaria, objects and ideas are repurposed and nothing is wasted. Stacks of clunky, outdated computers still work, wires trailing like vines in a greenhouse. Cedric Mizero, who designed both the costumes and the sets, fashions a biker jacket adorned with keys from a discarded QWERTY keyboard; a red silk dress with frayed sleeves; headdresses made from salvaged copper wire. Too often, a future aesthetic is clinical and utilitarian. Here, there is adornment, self-expression, and neon face paint.

The film is stuffed-to-bursting with ideas about how a liberated future might sound, as well as how it might look. “Foot stomp/ Hand clap/ Ground work,” raps Matalusa, rousing his fellow miners at a nighttime rave. The revolution is a party: in one scene, the camera pans across a quarry as the miners make music, using their shovels and pickaxes as literal instruments, singing a chant of resistance. Coltan is the metallic ore used to make mobile phones and laptops; by setting their film in a mining community, Williams and Uzeyman force the viewer to confront the extractive processes that power their Internet. Sleek Western technology can no longer be divorced from the so-called third-world labour that produces it – or as Neptune’s voiceover puts it, “Everything you pay not to see”.

Exploding binary thinking is part of the film’s project. Neptune is played by two actors, one male, one female. In the prologue, they explain that growing up as “a good little boy”, their life was never quite their own. As they free themselves from the restrictions of gender identity, their power grows. When they share a kiss with Matalusa, their shared energy disrupts US tech networks. News reports assume it’s Russia or China. In Neptune Frost, neither gender nor geopolitics are fixed.

Though its political intentions are clear, the film’s free-flowing timeline can be hard to follow. Williams and Uzeyman take a poetic approach to narrative, preferring not to explicitly differentiate between dream, memory, flashback and the present day. Meanwhile, the songs don’t advance the plot so much as flesh out the world. Neptune is praised by one of their comrades for being generous with their experiences, even if those experiences aren’t always legible. Watching, I was reminded of Williams’ 2016 song ‘All Coltrane Solos at Once’ and its rousing refrain: “fuck you / understand me”.

► Neptune Frost is in UK cinemas now.