Saul Williams is a modern polymath. He is a composer, writer, director, poet and actor. With the assistance of Lin Manuel Miranda and Ezra Miller, now he brings a peculiar sci-fi musical to the big screen. Neptune Frost got its title after a black revolutionary soldier from the 18th century. Williams’ dreamlike story is set in the harrowingly real African village, Burundi.
The futuristic, genre-wise pretty much uncategorizable independent movie is dark, funny, ironical and more often than not, even poetic. Williams and his co-director slash wife Anisia Uzeyman have definitely bought all their anger, frustration, fearful hopes and creativity to the project. One bold, uncompromising statement comes after another. Their central characters break the fourth wall, giving the finger to „Mr. Google”, and to the corporate and political elites. The makers of Neptune Frost do not shy away from taking „the riskier roads”, they are wildly experimentative.
The opening sequence is set in a cemetery, where we as audience members get our first taste of this particular, rural community. A funeral, as one of the most intimate, ritualistic and emotionally charged events in any family’s life, is the perfect beginning to the ferocious journey we are just about to go on. Straight after the funeral, we see the community’s youth going back to work. The dreamers and shapers of the future go back to do brutal manual work at a local coal mine. That is what they are destined to do, or not?
Williams opens doors to a world where slavery-esque labor is the only currency, the exploitation of the powerless, proprietorship, and the decomposition of human bodies are in the center of everyday life. Especially for people of color. “Thankfully” this is only true for the habitants of Burundi, right? Many heavy questions linger above us as viewers, just like dark clouds.
Neptune Frost is a beyond exciting piece of interdisciplinary art where music, neon painting, fine art and the rhythm of language join forces to show us the cultural richness of African culture. The walls of the coal mine and the surrounding hilltops echo the theatre-esque „mass dance” and shamanic chanting of the exhausted workers. Music is a pivotal element to the story, just like sound design. Traditional African rhymes mix with techno pop in a seamless way. Singing was recorded live, hence there is zero, „studio artificiality” to the songs. What you see is what you get.
We observe the world through the eyes of young adults who meditate on existence and their own place in society. They have no choice but to escape from their village, and establish a new, revolutionary collective against the ruling regime. From this aspect, we can also call William’s movie a coming-of-age story.
Dimensions and time lines blur into one another. Our main characters are all members of a post-war generation, college educated intellectuals from an underdeveloped, rural community. They run to the outskirts of society, hide in the woods and get organized. They are constructing and shaping the society they live in, representing a brand new world order. We see their abstract fantasies come to life, their personal and historical experiences branch out from dark traumatic times. They rely on modern technology, invent and organize their community with utmost consciousness and a deep sense of responsibility.
Williams does not break boundaries, he blends them. In this way, he succeeds in creating a fluid, dreamlike, mythical experience for his audience. We are engaged on a visceral, subconscious level and guided through a journey of impressions, forms, colors and explorations. Nepture Frost reminds me of live-action tales from the ’90s of Italy. Peculiar looking characters popping up and disappearing in forests and lakes. One man glows with silver, his hair is braided and he has bike wheels for arms. At one point, one of the rebels says „Maybe you are asking yourself. What the fuck is this? A poet’s idea or a dream?”. Who knows? And you know what: who cares? It is great anyways.
Our central characters are: Tekno, Martyn Loser King and their friends. The use of talking names was a wonderful idea. Interestingly enough, these ambiguous characters change and morph into one another. As we go from following one of the rebels to taking on the shoes of another, our perspective shifts. Identities slowly become unrecognizable. This is not the story of an individual, this is the story of a collective, of a community. Power lies in communities.
Other themes of the movie include police brutality, pre-decided elections, corruption, modern day oligarchy, heightened social tension, forgiveness, inequalities and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. Williams serves you with tons of thought-provoking questions, but never hits you in the head with a „PC hammer”. He is bold yet never aggressively pushy, which is to be appreciated.
Not unlike in After Yang and Inside, nature takes on an important role in this sci-fi as well. We frequently see a particular bird flying through the screen. This bird is the living witness of war, someone who flies through portals and represents disappearing values.
To sum up, Neptune Frost is a deeply conscious, intelligent and sensitive movie that does not shy away from strong criticism of society, technology and social media culture. At one point, Williams gives a powerful statement on today’s illusion ridden state „It’s not what I see. it’s what I see through”.
Watch Neptune Frost on Prime Video, Vudu, Apple TV, Roku or on The Criterion Channel.
~ by Dora Endre ~