'Neptune Frost' Review: Afrofuturist Musical Takes Capitalism to Task - Rolling Stone
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‘Neptune Frost’: An Afrofuturist Dreamscape Musical (!) Takes Capitalism to Task

The singular film explores harsh realities about the harvesting of black labor and natural resources, while pushing its characters and narrative into new dimensions

Neptune FrostNeptune Frost

Kaya Free as Matalusa in 'Neptune Frost.'

Kino Lorber

One of the first songs we hear in Neptune Frost, Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman’s perceptive and unusual take on a musical, is a work song. It’s during an early scene set among a group of miners who are busy harvesting the raw materials that will make the technologies of other people from other countries possible. Soon, one of those miners dies — rather, he is killed using the butt of an overseer’s gun. That’s when the mourning starts, particularly from the dead man’s brother Matalusa (played by Kaya Free). It’s also when the song starts: startled along by the pounding of drums. The drums are being played by men who are, in real life, refugees from Burundi that have been displaced by political unrest, and who in this movie render that sense of unrest into a troubled, turbulent form of music.

Much of the music in Neptune Frost isn’t like the music in a classically-styled musical. The songs, written by Williams, are not always an addendum to life or a feat of imaginative extrapolation. They aren’t always a break from reality. In fact, they are often opportunities for reality to insert itself. They are collective, alive, present-tense. They feel spontaneous because they sprout directly from life.

In a movie like Neptune Frost, with its free-flowing approach to narrative and unusual mix of political reality with Afrofuturist fantasy, those songs prove grounding. The bulk of our tale concerns Matalusa, who is a hacker, and the parallel, equally powerful Neptune (played by both Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo). These two people are fated to meet; their combination can seemingly unlock unknown, liberating powers that neither seems able to achieve on their own. Half of Neptune Frost depicts the story of how each of these characters comes to be in another dimension, a place which calls out to them, where their powers can flow freely; in Neptune’s case, the story of that journey is also a story of being unmoored from fixed gender, hence the role being played by multiple actors.

It’s a difficult movie to describe with any elegance, which is a good thing, because what’s enriching about it exists more powerfully in images than in speech. But there’s a clear through-line here. The story opens in the long aftermath of a war that isn’t overtly described but almost needn’t be: The fallout implies what came before. There is an attack on a university, the squashing of dissident opinion and public intellectuals, heightened police surveillance, and there are more boots on the necks of local laborers (in this case, miners) than ever before. All of this is transmitted, in Neptune Frost, through a confluence of strange present-tense scenes, and wandering origin tales; memories, breaks in the neat sutures of the narrative — all of which pull the characters toward some other reality, some techno-resistant destiny.

Instead of harvesting labor and natural resources, these characters — led by the combination of Neptune and Matalusa — learn to work toward harvesting their own power, which arrives in disruptive feats of creativity, not unlike that of the movie itself. Neptune Frost was partially filmed in e-waste sites in Burundi and has a tactile sense of reality for that reason. But it’s also appreciably, even humorously, lo-fi when it has to be — as in the succession of scenes in which we see characters step into that “other dimension,” a feat that relies entirely on the actors to make us believe they’ve gone from here to there. 

Williams and Uzeyman have made a movie that benefits from not being overwhelmed with splashy special effects, otherwise the resource-hogging implied by that kind of spectacle would sit at uneasy odds with the conflicts being displayed for us onscreen. The movie’s surest argument is felt in its seeing technology not as some invisible force whose labor can be taken for granted, but as the product of physical labor, of real exploitation, of bodies dead and buried and the people who mourn them. The costuming, by Cedric Mizero, is similarly high-concept in its use of “low” materials. We get a cape fashioned out of keyboards, masks that seem to render faces into grid-like antennae, a man whose body is variously bicycle and flesh: the practical and the familiar and the homemade bent, in other words, toward fantastical ends.

When Neptune and Matalusa finally unite, in one great musical scene, and their joined powers allow them to breach and break the entire internet, it’s Russia or China we hear named in the news as possible culprits — not Africa, not Burundi, and certainly not a pair of hackers the likes of Neptune and Matalusa. Black labor, the movie tells us, is bound up with the history of technology. Yet blackness is so obscured, in the end, and the laborers are so deprived of the technologies that they make, that even when the internet breaks, all eyes turn to China or the West — not to the source.

Neptune Frost mixes the whimsical with the didactic, the earth-bound with the unimagined. Its central motor and primary technology is narrative: oral stories, transmitted and made collective, power our way forward. The movie is at its best when it’s twining together the stories of characters whose fate seems to be pulling them toward possibilities that they hadn’t only just dreamed of. Where it manages to go once they’ve gotten there is almost less satisfying. The getting-there, the discoveries made along the way, are not only the central pleasure, but the point.

In This Article: Musical

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