Neptune Frost is a powerful film, clean and digestible while it traffics in metaphors and deploys poetry and philosophy. Directed by Anisia Uzeyman (a Rwandan actress and playwright that also directed photography) and Saul Williams (an American musician and multimedia artist who also wrote the screenplay), Neptune Frost is extensively musical without ever being exhausting. It’s clear in its theses, demanding equity and decency for workers, for citizens of the Global South generally and Rwanda specifically, and for intersex and queer Africans subjected to discrimination and marginalization born from the same colonial traditions that rob nations of their wealth. It’s elegantly shot and engages with traditions of science fiction and anti-colonialist magical realism to frame an alternatingly rough and ornate Afrofuturist aesthetic. Calling Neptune Frost art with a purpose feels like damning it to the pile of things that are “good” because they are “important.” Neptune Frost is valuable because of the creative and organic way it delivers its messages: Questioning colonial legacies and demanding change through a moving, musical script while displaying speculative imagery that requires audiences’ imaginations as well as their eyeballs.
Neptune Frost follows two Rwandans: Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse), a worker who sees his brother Tekno killed on the job, and an intersex person who comes to be called Neptune, who avoids being sexually assaulted by the pastor that did their aunt’s funeral service by braining the pastor with a glass bottle. Initially portrayed by Elvis Ngabo, the unnamed Neptune faces ostracization and alienation, as the wary looks they exchange with rural Rwandans signify a lack of trust or safety.
They meet a nun (Cecile Kayiregawa) who knew their mother, then travel by boat from one region of the country to another. After dancing with some kids and being hit by a motorcycle, they experience a transformation—lying on a bed of playing cards, anointed by a mystical-seeming human who heals their injuries and puts them in the dress they’d been concealing in their luggage—and are now played by Cheryl Isheja.
This version of not-yet-Neptune encounters a man (Dorcy Rugamba) who finds them attractive, but narrowly avoids being assaulted once this person grabs at, and is surprised by, their genitals. This sequence and the ensuing escape represent some of the film’s most memorable cinematography, as the character’s own intoxication lends to a trancelike countenance to the framing.
Neptune Frost uses domestic uprisings at universities as its backdrop while an increasingly authoritarian and corrupt central government, referred to as The Authority, represses students and workers. Sleeping under a tree, Matalusa is visited by a pseudo-angel the group later calls “Wheel Man” (Eric 1Key) who presents Matalusa with a prophecy: He’ll meet and fall in love with Neptune, and should hack computer systems as well as systems of oppression. It’s a revolutionary mix of the literal and metaphorical. Matalusa eventually finds a small compound built of discarded electronics, apparently a nexus point for interdimensional travelers like the cyborg Elohel (Rebecca Mucyo) and the sage Memory (Eliane Umuhire), who wears a nest on their shoulder for a scout bird we come to know late in the film as Frost. The group are eventually joined by dissident student-musician Psychology (Trésor Niyongabo), and finally our other original protagonist, now called Neptune.
Together, Neptune and Matalusa channel soul energy to disrupt telecommunications across the world in response to the subjugation that Western powers have put the country under while extracting its resources—such as the coltan used to make cell phones. They acquire the moniker “MartyrLoserKing” (Williams’ multimedia project, of which this film is part), causing panic across global markets.
A film like this must end abruptly because its plot requires rebels waiting for blowback. The great flaw to me was that this ending finally came after three or four fades to black that led me to believe that Neptune Frost would accept ending with ambiguity. These unintentional fake-outs disrupted the flow, though it was pleasant to continue the story each time.
That’s because the actual content of the film is a successful audiovisual blend. From Tekno’s death to the resistance’s meetings about their future, musical performances fill the narrative. What’s more, they mostly textually take place within the film, the characters consciously using song to celebrate their lives, mourn their dead and express dissent toward the national government/world order. The costumes are constructed in part from elegantly repurposed electronic trash like copper wiring and deconstructed keyboards, contributing to the film’s commentary on the cast-off and the forgotten becoming magical. Combined with the sets, the film’s aesthetic can feel more YouTube than SYFY, though its effectiveness and ornateness is assisted by Uzeyman’s crisp cinematography. It makes the low-tech costume and art design (both done by Cedric Mizero) tangible and real, all while alluding to a higher electronic function bordering on and overlapping with magic. It’s masterful.
The raw nature of Neptune Frost’s production gives it a sense of high-res, community theater authenticity that requires a different suspension of disbelief than that introduced by the computer FX late in the film. The first part of this is a screen-encompassing techno-psychedelia that recurs from the middle of the film onward. That part works. Floating, glowing coltan rocks in the background of the third act represent the bigger issue. While they gesture at the small hacker resistance group’s mystic or magic connection to the land and its metals, they’re also diegetically ignored. The actors don’t interact with them because they don’t know they’re there. That money might have been better spent on further developing the physical camp set, contributing to the alternating visions of simple photorealism and imaginative fable.
Neptune Frost is about colonialism’s consequences—patriarchal heteronormativity, economic exploitation and resource extraction—punishing ignored masses. We need to pay attention; workers’ well-being is the price of our luxuries. In Rwanda, as in other parts of Africa, Asia, Oceania, South America and the Caribbean, the wealth of the West costs lives. But we’ve known this since Cien Años de Soledad, since Candide. It’s a reminder that there are no countries in Africa destined to be deprived of development, only countries who’ve had their wealth taken from and, often, weaponized against them. To that end, the poetry of the script, the clarity of the messages, the beauty of the music and the earnestness of the performances combine to make Neptune Frost a powerful film. Art can’t change the world on its own, but people—moving in solidarity and coalition, speaking up for and out against exploitation—can call upon one another to change it.
Director: Saul Williams, Anisia Uzeyman
Writer: Saul Williams
Starring: Cheryl Isheja, Elvis Ngabo, Kaya Free, Bertrand Ninteretse
Release Date: June 3, 2022
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.