Neptune Frost review – exhilarating Afrofuturist musical battles exploitation

Transgressive revolutionaries in a dazzlingly inventive drama from Anisia Uzeyman and musician Saul Williams, set in an alternate Burundi

Black Panther 2 is imminent, but in many ways the extraordinary Neptune Frost is the real Afrofuturist deal: a transgressive socialist Wakanda with an exoskeleton of punk geopolitics bolted on. As well as a denunciation of the western techno-centric order, it’s a musical lesson in conscious collaboration between the developed and developing world that Hollywood could learn from – instead of just piggybacking on African aesthetics. Filmed in Rwanda but set in Burundi, the story was developed by US musician Saul Williams – drawing on material from his recent albums – and his Rwandan wife Anisia Uzeyman; they share the directorial credit.

A near-future alt.Burundi gets its own Ziggy Stardust: Neptune (Elvis Ngabo), a gaunt outcast who likes wearing high heels and wanders the countryside in search of “fourth dimensional libations”. Shepherded by a priestess praying to the “Motherboard”, he transitions to become an elegant, red-gowned woman (Cheryl Isheja), who then hooks up with fugitive coltan miner Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse, AKA Burundian rapper Kaya Free), head of the hackers’ village collective of Digitaria. Their band of revolutionaries is facing off against the Authority, an oppressive regime who enforce the mineral and bodily exploitation of the locals.

Neptune Frost is aflame with outsider injustice. Conveying its indignation in oblique poetic outpourings and songs that switch freely between Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Swahili, French and English, it tirelessly calls everything into question: sexual identity, western hegemony, whether technology is a substitute for action. It sometimes gets bogged down in turgid polemic, but what’s surprising is how supple and communitarian it stays. In the utopian future the hacktivists envisage, nothing is defined, everything open to debate. Matalusa (whose slogan Martyr Loser King is surely a mutation of Martin Luther King) falls in love with Neptune, and their union causes global shockwaves.

If narrative clarity is obviously not top of Uzeyman and Williams’ priorities, the film always looks amazing: fluorescent dream sequences, glitchy cyberpunk overlays, wild character designs (from costume designer Cedric Mizero and makeup artist Tanya Melendez). It is part of a burgeoning movement of lo-fi Afrofuturism from the global south that also includes Air Conditioner, from Angola, and Once There Was Brasília, from Brazil, whose shared surrealist bent suggests something powerful, irrepressible but not fully articulated bubbling up. But when this strident film does articulate, it has the best slogans. Like its ordinary hail-and-well-met: “Unanimous goldmine!”

• Neptune Frost is released in cinemas on 4 November.

Contributor

Phil Hoad

The GuardianTramp

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