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Neptune Frost’s radical sci-fi future

The Afrofuturist musical from Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman hits theaters on June 3rd

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neptune frost
Neptune Frost.
Image: Kino Lorber

Each story has a beginning, just as each has many interpretations, like dreams. For Neptune Frost, that story begins with an ending. More specifically, the death of Neptune’s grandmother. In the afterglow of life and the religious importance of moving on from the mortal plain, a comment from Neptune, played by both Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo, feels poignant: “my life never felt like my own.”

From here, it’s into the cobalt mines we go, where colonialism takes new form as workers extract cobalt and other precious materials — the same ones that power the electronic devices you’re reading this article on right now — mostly for richer Western countries without the benefits being felt at home. For all these countries have found independence, capitalism has ensured the old power dynamics remain: border disputes replaced by dollar signs and executive bonuses paid for by Rwandan and African labor slaving away for their new-age masters.

One of them is murdered simply for taking a rest.

Surely there’s a way to break this cycle. A way to turn the electronic tools of oppression into the tools of liberation. To not just take control of their labor and their lives but to hack the system, picture a dream, and dare to live it. An idea can turn into a community that can turn into a movement that can turn into genuine change. It’s a chance to become a catalyst for systemic, revolutionary change, a MartyrLoserKing.

Neptune Frost is dense, a film and musical like few others. Even describing it as a movie would be inaccurate. For artists and directors Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman, the “film” of Neptune Frost is just part of a multimedia project encompassing the music and graphic novel, first brought to realization with the MartyrLoserKing album released by Williams in 2016 and a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2018.

It’s a deliberately lo-fi Afrofuturist story about the links between modern-day colonialism and the capitalist system that feeds on it, about queer liberation as a step toward liberation for all, and the ability for a community to embrace the technological chains that are used to hold them back and instead take control. It’s a story of this intersex runaway finding a community that rejects the capitalist system run by “The Authority” to live collectively, using the land and the minerals once stolen from them to enrich themselves. A story where the role of these devices in both control and liberation of race, labor, gender, sexuality, and existence is explored in depth through the eyes of the oppressed.

It’s also a love story, just one where the fight to be free is deeply intertwined into the dynamics of the relationship between Neptune and coltan miner Matalusa. “We see how Neptune’s power is distributed through her connection with another superhero, Matalusa,” noted Uzeyman, as both they and Williams spoke about the film over Zoom. “Energy comes from his work in the coltan mine, the precious metal used to distribute power in our technology. That is their story. We are proposing this universe, but between things, a lot of what we experience is made by your mind and your own persona and your own poetry and your own ability to be a part of that world.”

The journey from conception to finished film took over a decade — and it didn’t even start as a movie. “The project was initially conceived around 2011, and at that time it was conceived to be exactly what it is now: a musical and the graphic novel, with the distinction being that the musical was for the stage,” explained Williams. “After Anisia and I did a residency in 2014 we stepped away from that and spoke to some producers who said ‘I love this idea, but I’d be more apt to support it if it were a film because taking it to Broadway would be really expensive.’”

The cost-prohibitive realities of a stage production led to the story moving from stage to screen. At this same time, the musical aspect of the film began to take shape in the form of Williams’ concept album, offering a first public glimpse at this experimental techno-hacktivist story. The film and its music were primarily informed by the disparities laid bare by the 2008 financial crash as well as the weaponization of the internet by both the grassroots masses and the all-seeing, war-mongering eyes of government, issues that have only grown more pertinent in the following years.

“The politics of Neptune Frost were established at the beginning,” noted Williams. “You had the various anti-gay laws on the continent, you had WikiLeaks, you had the Arab Spring, Chelsea Manning. Everything that we’re talking about in this film is exactly what we were talking about then and all the way up until now. The subject matter became more prevalent because of Trayvon Martin, then Trump gets elected, all these different things.”

“And this wasn’t only here in the US. When we arrived to shoot the initial sizzle reel for the film in Rwanda and Kigali in 2016, we ended up meeting a great part of our cast who were actually refugees from Burundi who fled because of the political upheaval that happened there in 2015. And so, Kaya [Free] (who plays Matalusa), Trésor [Niyongabo] (who plays Psychology), our entire ensemble of Burundian drummers, they’re all refugees that arrived in Rwanda in 2015. It was all coalescing.”

neptune frost
Image: Kino Lorber

Concerns that birthed the project in 2011 only became more relevant in the years that followed. QAnon has showcased the web’s power at shaping and distorting our reality. Even in the time that passed between our conversation and the film’s release, TikTok and Twitter have played crucial roles in shaping the narrative of the war in Ukraine, showcasing the ways grassroots actions can serve a collective function in challenging a violent, nebulous authority.

Of course, this assumes that technology is merely a device like a phone, divorced from our interactions and input. Neptune Frost would reject this idea. As Neptune runs from their home to find a place that allows them to live as themselves, they reach the off-the-grid hacktivist village that soon becomes home. This village, designed by Cedric Mizero with the idea that these devices and minerals are rooted in the ground and the people that live there, assumes that it is actually we that are the technology.

After all, this home and its residents are infused with it, with discarded computer motherboards now repurposed as shelter or as a way to connect with the outside world, while items once thought of as trash find new meaning within their collective existence. That which had once been a tool of control becomes a radicalizing tool in their hands, just as the ways in which the village is embedded with these tools serves to showcase humanity’s role in dictating how they’re used.

Even the ways in which the people of the village such as Neptune take on new names to assume control over their identities serves this idea. These people are freeing themselves from that which stopped them from expressing themselves and living freely. In turn, the film is challenging us to frame our debates around the power of these devices and the internet in this same liberating light. Far from the long-stated diatribe that “technology will not save us” — provided we accept that technology’s integration into modern society makes it as much a part of us as external from us — the challenge is ensuring that it’s used to empower those once left overlooked.

This is what allows the music of Neptune Frost to come alive. This isn’t music you’ll find yourself humming, instead serving as noise infused with the drumbeat of progress, a chant of repeating phrases blended with synthetic electronic sounds. The music is the heartbeat of the characters as much as it is the beat of the film, the rhythm of their lives, dreamily inserted while still striking at the film’s thematic core.

This only advances technology’s place in Neptune Frost. A computer can only go so far without human input, so it follows that the music blends the traditional and modern in a character-driven ethereal wave. “I think the movie is a window into a world to discover, to connect with, and to dance with,” explained Uzeyman. “In music we can see with traditional drums, for instance, that the dancers also invent a rhythm in between the rhythm the drum is giving, which matches the story of how these invisible communities reach visibility, even as people profit from this invisibility.”

Technology empowers us, so using that to reach out and connect beyond the barriers of language and culture is key to revolution. “I think that one of the themes of the film in regards to technology is how we include ourselves into that equation,” Uzeyman continued. “How are we not the algorithm that is forgotten? How are we not the people that are forgotten, when we are the source of it? This story is very fluid because it is the birth of a superhero, just as Neptune is born again at 23-years-old at the start of the film. This is just a window on how that occurred, how she was born, and how she became in full possession of her power.”

neptune frost
Neptune Frost.
Image: Kino Lorber

Ultimately, only by using our brains and bodies as much as the minerals we mine for blood and profit can the narrative evolve from exploitation to collaboration. The village is not solely a place away from the nebulous Authority where these people can live freely; it’s a representation of a better, collaborative existence. E-waste (taken from a real e-waste dump in Rwanda and used to create the sets) and old phones power new movements — nature and technology and humanity as one whole.

Beyond the film is the graphic novel. Whereas Neptune Frost, the film, explores the story from Neptune’s perspective, finding themselves as an intersex person liberated from their old life and a society that viewed them differently, the comic follows Matalusa. Still, the aim of transposing into a new medium is not simply to recount the same story from a different perspective but to expand upon it.

“I can tell you that I didn’t let the illustrator see the film until last week,” admitted Williams (this interview took place in January 2022). “I was waiting for them to get to a particular point in the story, I was like, when you get here you can see it. That was really about allowing the sort of intuitive grace of the creative process to have space, it was about respecting the artist. However, the illustrator worked with us on the production design when we shot the sizzle reel in 2016. Otherwise, the graphic novel doesn’t lean heavily on music, although there are musical moments in that they express themselves musically.”

Technology connects us just as much as stories have the ability to bring us together, and each holds as much power as we imbue into them. Ensuring these ideas have the ability to thrive is most important, regardless of the medium or how we experience them. If the pandemic showed us anything, it was the role that it can have in keeping us connected in divided times. And, as Williams and Uzeyman flew from Rwanda at the end of filming on the final flight before COVID-19 closed their borders, how easy it is to remain divided in spite of it.

Yet even the simplest things can connect us. From two different continents, it is technology that provided us the ability to commune with one another about this film, from which we can create our own space and connection. When everyone’s connected, and when these tools are understood as an extension of human existence that can join us just as much as it isolates and divides us, only then can we fix the inequalities and disconnects we have allowed to fester through bloodshed and borders.

Neptune Frost is in theaters starting on June 3rd.