NEPTUNE FROST: Music as Protest

The Afrofuturist sci-fi tale of love and resistance is now playing in select theaters.

Neptune Frost is a visual marvel of neon and recycled computer parts. Reminiscent of other musical films which don’t follow typical conventions of the genre — Woman at War and One Sings, The Other Doesn’t particularly come to mind — the 2021 work incorporates songs as a form of resistance. Hip-hop numbers and call and response songs delve into themes like gender identity, environmental racism, living in a postcolonial country, mining, and more. The imagery is hypnotic and imaginative, and the pacing is all over the place. Even when I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the screen.

Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse, also known as Kaya Free), a miner, is inspired by a dream to join a group of hackers while dealing with the death of his brother. In a hide-out among like-minded folks, he meets Neptune, a genderqueer individual (played by two separate performers at different points, Elvis Ngabo and Cheryl Isheja), and their partnership gives the group a new power.

A cohesive story seems less vital to filmmakers Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman than the messages that come through the music and fever dream imagery they have created here. From scenes of miners hammering accompanied by drumbeat to a quick song as Neptune runs to find the hide-out — and even during a quieter scene of nuns working in a garden — the pivotal moments all involve song. There’s a bit of fourth-wall breaking in the performance of a few of the numbers, as the actors look directly at the camera as they sing or rap to the viewer. This pulls the audience further in, enchanting us even more. Co-director Williams composed the original music for the visionary film.

Cinematographer and co-director Uzeyman does marvelous work here; the night scenes are particularly vibrant. Neptune Frost pulses with fluorescent hues and looks like nothing else I’ve seen before. This overall look includes the bizarre, futuristic costuming by Cedric Mizero. Mizero’s costumes in the hacker camp are astonishing—Matalusa’s jacket covered in keyboard keys is a memorable touch.

Although a sci-fi tale, Neptune Frost is planted in our times and confronts the after effects of our world history. It may veer from a traditional narrative path, but the visual and musical elements of the work make for compelling viewing. The filmmakers have a distinct storytelling voice and I’m eager to see more from them.

Neptune Frost opens at AFS Cinema in Austin on Friday, June 17 and is playing in select theaters elsewhere.

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