Director Anisia Unyman and Saul Williams’ Afrofuturist film Neptune Frost has variously described as inventive and incomprehensible, techno and cyber-tribal, lo-fi and musical. Yet the actual experience of watching the film defies written description. It’s a film that weaves together smooth, subtle rhythms and a distinctly memorable technological aesthetic; both dreamlike and grounded, abstract yet naturalistic. It is a film that simultaneously uses high science fiction concepts to communicate political realities, exploring the intersection of race, gender, class and labor, criticizing the exploitation of the African continent by capitalist powers . In short, it’s a film that demands to be experienced, listened to, thought about. Undoubtedly, the creative force of Uneyman and William’s vision is enough to warrant this attention.
If the plot of Neptune Frost To sum it up, it would go something like this: Neptune (Elvis Ngabo and Cheryl Isheja), an intersex runaway reconfiguring his gender identity, collides dimensionally with Matalusa (Kaya Free), who has left the brutal conditions of the mine where he works after his brother Tekno is brutally killed by an overseer. Their paths cross in a camp of radicals who, by defying the “Authority” which brutally suppressed the protest, have hijacked technology to create their own community: huts made of computers and screens, fashion and makeup with caps keyboard and transistors. There, Matalusa and Neptune fall in love and, to oversimplify, fuel a rebellion of hackers against the extractive capitalist and technological world economy.
But this summary suggests a simple linearity that the film doesn’t quite adhere to. The film’s style is understated and naturalistic; the scenes flow from place to place, now and then, reality in dreams. Background stories smoothly intertwine with present moments, while present moments smoothly turn into dreams. This understated style works well for keeping Neptune Frost grounded, despite its sci-fi influences.
“Musical” is also not a sufficient term to describe the film’s soundscape. “Musical” tends to conjure musical-style films on stage sung with numbers and sets, a la red Mill Where The greatest showman. There, the music is generally non-diegetic: although the characters express themselves through song, the in-universe characters do not actually sing. In Neptune Frost, however, Williams’ music is naturally woven into the film’s reality. The characters use music to cope with the rhythms of daily work (as one miner put it, “mining is music”), express their identity, tell stories and stories; they rap, sing drums, dance, play handmade electric guitars. As well as being a critical part of the film’s thematic landscape, Williams’ music slams; the soundscape of the film is amazing and one of my favorite elements of the film.
The film’s difficulty lies mainly in its sci-fi concepts, which can be difficult to understand: explanations of dimensional travel, the “motherboard”, and hacking logic are often provided by long and flowery verbal exposition. However, instead of becoming abstract and baseless, these descriptors and terms are used to communicate concrete realities in an imaginative, fresh and striking way.
A perfect example of this is the line explaining the collective’s motto and salutation, “Unanimous Goldmine”. As one member of the collective explains, “Unanimous Goldmine is the salvation of the resource-rich who face a world beholden to the currency of our depletion. This golden salute raises the vibration of metallic injustice to the threshold of planetary sustenance. The descriptive language here may initially appear, like many other science fiction exposition speeches, confusingly abstract. In the context of the film, however, this phrase identifies the central driver of our global economy: the Global North’s dependence on the rich resources of the Global South, particularly Africa, a continent with a long history of colonialism it’s still to be plundered for resources. Coltan, at the center of the film, is an essential material in much of our technology, from telephones to electric cars, and is often mined in Africa with child labor and other worker abuses.
“Unanimous Goldmine” is therefore a symbol of the film’s political commitment: it is a call for solidarity between those who form the proverbial gold mine of today’s society, and a declaration of resistance against forces that exploit and disrupt indigenous communities. At the end of the day, Neptune Frost is a world where science fiction and technology can become a place of resistance instead of restriction, of possibility instead of production and liberation – from racism, from cisnormativity, from exploitation, from capitalism. And that world is only realized through the film’s creative vision – from Williams’ beats, to the actors’ naturalistic performances, to the neon cyberesthetics of its set design and costumes – which must be experienced to be truly understood.
Neptune Frost is currently playing in select theaters courtesy of Kino Lorber.