Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman’s genre/time-hopping multimedia project is confusing at times, but nothing short of spellbinding.
Former statesman Saul Williams never shied away from grand and versatile projects. An early adopter of both Democratic distribution methods and indie rap, his career has been characterized by relentless innovation and daunting prolificacy. Co-directed with her partner Anisia Uzeyman (her second feature), Williams’ feature debut, Neptune Frostarrives with an equally charged and daring context.
Conceptually inspired by his 2016 album, MartyrLoserKing, and designed in tandem with an upcoming graphic novel; their film is an ambitiously stuffed afrofuturist musical love story with two narrators. Neptune (alternately played by Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo) is an intersex track while Matalusa (Kaya Free) is a minor from coltana material burden that folds into the film’s critique of both colonialism and capitalism.
Neptune is an avatar of fluidity oscillating between gender perceptions in attire (high heels) and body language. Their liquidity reflects the film’s communion between the technological and the earthly in a multidimensional continuum. Matalusa, which is played by real musician Kaya Free, is less distinctive, but a bigger piece of the musical sequences.
This expansive conceit fits perfectly into Afrofuturism, an artistic framework that maps figures as disparate as Octavia Butler, Sun Ra and Jean-Michel Basquiat on the same plain. Subject matter expert Ytasha Womack summarizes this as “[combining] elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magical realism with non-Western beliefs.
Neptune Frost leans most heavily on sci-fi facets, envisioning versions of Rwanda and Burundi (also filmed there) where flat terrain intermingles with computer benches arranged like sacred monuments. In this place, Neptune, Matalusa and other like-minded people seek enlightenment in technology, freedom from “The Authority” and transcendence of their struggle as black African people.
Diverted passages follow Neptune and Matalusa as they encounter a series of clearly metaphorical entities like Memory (Eliane Umhire) and Innocent (Dorcy Rugamba), who wear outfits covered in keyboard parts or decorated with Rwandan jewelry made of computer wiring . Memory and Innocent are thankfully more enigmatic than their names suggest, but they underscore the film’s unnecessary density.
Most of the characters – including the protagonists – speak with a combination of stream-of-consciousness koans and technobabble that can feel like reading a computer user manual upside down. Throughout, it’s not uncommon to hear phrases like “The motherboard is bleeding” or “First and third world currency”. On an album, this label in a bar can ideally slip away without attracting attention. It’s much more difficult in a film with a feast or famine approach to storytelling.
For example, Memory and Innocent mentioned above sometimes drop buzzwords, but it’s more believable because they’re already talking in the trance-like verses reminiscent of something like horse money. Or perhaps as a more apt simile – the inner opera mythologies of film-albums like Lemonade Where When I come back home. But while both of these movies were driven by barely legible connective tissue (vibes), Neptune Frost feels so bogged down in world building that it can feel like it’s dragging its feet to the next waypoint.
In other places, it bears little resemblance to the current fashionable composition of film-albums. Most of the musical numbers are closer to the riot motivational mantras than even the tracks on Williams’ source album.
These sequences are rarely less exciting than discrete pieces. Williams and Uzeyman (who doubles as DP) pull them off with a holistic approach, following Free but still presenting him as a synecdoche. And set designer/costumer Cedric Mizero and co-producer Antoine Nshimiyimana take the opportunity to stylize each scene as a split between the retro-futurism of Johnny Mnemonic and the clinical surrealism of Southland Tales.
Paired with futuristic sound that collides with jungle breakbeats, sub-bass explosions, and iconic African instruments streaking through oscillators, the film feels unexpectedly most cohesive in these moments of synchronicity. Especially when he can go from Free Rattling through a multilingual inventory of his tribulation to rock of lovers-style happiness.
But even in its most obvious form, the film traffics in provocative choices – textured camera movements that make the action lucid but feel contained in reverie, deft deconstructions of people into polygonal maps, or simply images pleasant strays like someone with a cyborg arm dragging a cigarette. Hopefully next time these two talented artists won’t feel the need to explain so many down-to-earth concerns.
Neptune Frost is currently playing in select theaters.