‘Neptune Frost’ Provides a Dizzying Twist on Black Power—And You Can Dance to It

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Two people face each other against background of green lights
A scene from Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman's 'Neptune Frost.' (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

Poet, musician, writer and actor Saul Williams’ wild, wonderful debut feature, Neptune Frost, is a thoughtful and joyful ode to Black liberation and Black revolution. And as expansive as that description may be, it is insufficient to encompass the vastness of Williams’ imagination and ideas.

Neptune Frost, which opens Friday, June 10 at the Roxie and June 17 at the New Parkway in Oakland (with a June 26 show at Alamo Drafthouse) after a heralded debut last year at Cannes and paeans at the Toronto, New York and Sundance festivals, depicts a world whose existence was first conjured (or at least hinted at) in Williams’ 2016 album MartyrLoserKing. (Say that title out loud a couple times, or put “Dr.” in front of it, and another set of associations, and interpretations presents itself.)

Set in the hinterlands of Burundi, and peopled with a visually arresting array of colorful characters who have an innate urge to break into song, the movie delivers a radical worldview in a familiar frame—as a journey, an escape, a quest. Indeed, one of the protagonists declares, after a good deal of weirdness has already ensued, “I walk to understand.”

Man in profile backlit by blue-screened monitors
A scene from Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman's 'Neptune Frost.' (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

Matalusa (Bertrand Netereste), a powerless coltan miner, runs away after the death of his aunt from natural causes, the murder of his brother by a brutal foreman and a sexual advance by the pastor who drops by to comfort him. (That’s just the first 15 minutes.) He eventually crosses paths with Neptune, an intersex hacker (played by both Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo) with considerable insights and powers. The characters allude throughout to a largely unseen landscape of war, authoritarianism and environmental decay, yet the movie carefully avoids crossing into post-apocalyptic dystopia.

So on its simplest level, Neptune Frost (in Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Swahili, French and English with English subtitles) is a parable of exploitation and the pursuit of freedom, justice and autonomy. But it evokes a galaxy of wide-ranging possibilities that are within our reach so long as our imaginations are not constrained.


Neptune Frost unfolds in a gender-fluid world somewhere between, or rather among, the past and the future, replete with the occasional flashback and flash-forward. The multiverse is all the rage these days, and this ambitious and endearingly original film reimagines linear time and one-way reality with singular wit and wackiness. The thrust of Williams’ approach, in collaboration with Rwandan cinematographer and co-director Anisia Uzeyman (who’s also his partner), is more philosophical than dramatic or emotional. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I was stimulated and pleased by the heady panoply of metaphors, aphorisms and themes more than by the dreams and plight of his protagonists.

Group of people with raise arms and middle fingers to camera
A scene from Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman's 'Neptune Frost.' (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

It’s impossible to resist, however, a nocturnal dream sequence that looks like a blacklight poster brought to teeming, dripping life. Or a percussive soundtrack that links the beat of the heart to the traditions of Africa and, at the same time, rejects the Western construct of Afro-primitivism.

The movie is imbued with a fierceness that is never subsumed by anger—that is, frustration. Williams’ characters are the authors of their own destiny, never the victims of their circumstances. In fact, they run the planet, in the sense that miners dig up the minerals needed to fuel cellphones and the internet, and Neptune is the ultimate hot-wire ace and disruptor. (This take on Black power may sound jokey or sophomoric, but Williams and Uzeyman and their winning cast put the concept over with punch as well as panache.)

Figure looks at camera through face mask of horizontal wires
A scene from Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman's 'Neptune Frost.' (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

I thought a lot about Sun Ra, the visionary jazz musician and original buzzy light-years traveler, while I watched Neptune Frost. He was a dreamer of utopias, and exuded the innocence of those who create and live in their own reality. Saul Williams also dreams of a better future, but he can’t put aside Black history and Black suffering. His idea of utopia is thrilling, but it’s not unencumbered.

Neptune Frost is an accessible yet dense work whose themes and metaphors intersect, overlap and fold into and around each other. It deserves to be seen twice. A walk will also be helpful, to understand.

‘Neptune Frost’ opens at the Roxie Theater (San Francisco) on June 10, the New Parkway (Oakland) on June 17 and the Alamo Drafthouse (San Francisco) on June 26.