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Neptune Frost cover image

Neptune Frost 2022

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Kino Lorber Edu, 333 West 39 St, Suite 503, New York, NY 10018; 212-629-6880
Produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Stephen Hendel
Directed by Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman
Streaming, 105 mins

High School - General Adult
African Studies; Globalization

Date Entered: 09/22/2022

Reviewed by Andy Horbal, Cornell University Library

Neptune Frost isn’t quite like anything else out there. The film, which is set in Burundi, begins with a close up of a person in an elaborate wire headdress turning to face the camera. This, we will eventually learn, is Neptune, as played by an actress named Cheryl Isheja. “I was born in my 23rd year,” they say in voiceover. “My first breath, just before the war, led to 22 years of what my Aunt called our ‘afterlife,’ and she thanked God for every single day. And me... I was a good boy.” The character is also portrayed by an actor named Elvis Ngabo, who we encounter attending their Aunt’s funeral in the very next scene. The opening shot is set in the present; everything else before the end credits is a flashback. Isheja will assume the role of Neptune from Ngabo about a quarter of the way through the film.

All of this may sound complicated, but Neptune Frost has a deceptively straightforward plot. The funeral cuts to a tracking shot of a collection of figures with pickaxes and shovels working in a quarry. A guard clubs one of the miners to death with the butt of his rifle. This act of violence drives the man’s brother Matalusa (Kaya Free) away; at the same time, Neptune fends off a sexual assault and also leaves home. The first half of the film consists of them both separately making their way to the camp of a hacker’s collective protected by an invisible barrier. There’s a lot of talk about dreams and alternate dimensions, but it all boils down to the idea that the two characters start out in one place and journey somewhere else.

Matalusa’s travels aren’t depicted in the film, but Neptune’s include a university student protest against a government entity referred to as The Authority, a dream encounter with their alter ego overseen by a supernatural being known as the Wheel-Man (Eric 1Key), and getting hit by a motorcycle. The ritual which heals them from this accident is also the one that transforms them into the other version of themself, and Neptune (now played by Isheja) meets a man named Innocent (Dorcy Rugamba) soon after. They get drunk together and begin kissing, but this ends when Innocent reaches between Neptune’s legs and recoils from horror of what he finds there, causing Neptune to run away.

Music appears all throughout the film, but its middle portion is jam-packed full of songs. Some feature things like non-diegetic background dancers, but most are sung by people in the camp as they celebrate new arrivals and elaborate on their political and religious philosophies. The lyrics by co-director (along with Anisia Uzeyman) Saul Williams are replete with poetic phrases like “think like they book say,” “roach egg economy,” and “down for some ignorance,” which draw an unflattering comparison between the oppressive Western world order they are rebelling against and the new one they want to create. This section also features outrageously creative costumes by Cedric Mizero constructed out of keyboard keys and other technological detritus, boldly colorful makeup and lighting, an extended telling off of “Mr. Google,” and an explanation of “unanimous goldmine,” the ubiquitous greeting that the hackers give one another, as a “golden salute” which “elevates the vibration of metallic injustice to the threshold of planetary sustenance.”

The second half of the film doesn’t quite maintain the same level of energy, but does effectively tie all of the story’s disparate threads together. As everyone wakes up the morning after Matalusa and Neptune sleep together for the first time, the internet and news broadcasts are full of talk about a hacker named Martyr Loser King who is wreaking havoc around the globe. This is explained as being the result of a connection between the two protagonists which somehow allows Neptune to intuitively manipulate computer systems the same way their brain “gives the unsaid instructions to move a limb or lift a middle finger.” Unfortunately, Innocent shows up at the camp in a soldier’s uniform and bearing a warning that the source of the hack has been traced there. Bad things happen next, but Neptune Frost ends on an optimistic note with Neptune addressing a drone sent by The Authority and the European and US intelligence agencies that they are working with in a scene reminiscent of the conclusion of The Matrix: “I am the Martyr Loser King. You build walls but no FireWalls to protect you from those who burn like candles, whose necks you can chop a million times but still burn bright and stand.”

Neptune Frost has been accurately described by critics as an example of “Afrofuturism,” and anyone who has seen other films which attract this label (including most famously Black Panther) will recognize the signature combination of science fiction themes and an African aesthetic. But how many other works in this genre also compare favorably to the films of Dario Argento for their use of color, the rest of the Matrix quadrilogy for their interrogation of the connections between perceptions of gender and race, or the documentaries of Nikolaus Geyrhalter and Michael Glawogger for their commitment to exposing what lies beneath the veneer of globalism? Throw in the fact that it is a musical which was shot on location in Rwanda with a predominantly African cast and crew, and you have a film which will appeal to any library that wants to add diversity to its collection, no matter what dimension of that term they’re interested in.

Boston Underground Film Festival, Best Debut Feature; Melbourne International Film Festival, Bright Horizons Award; Namur International Festival of French-Speaking Film, Petit Agnès Prize

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