Movie dialogue that’s quotable is cute and all, but I crave dialogue that sticks like an icepick in my temporal lobe. Make it hurt. Make it so I won’t forget. Can’t forget. For the rest of my life, I will carry words from “Neptune Frost” inside a brain wrinkle, scarred on my heart.
“Imagining hell is a privilege.”
I do not believe in the hierarchy of pain, that we must dismiss our minor agonies because others suffer more major ones. But others do suffer more major ones. “Others” meaning Black people. Meaning women. Meaning Trans people. Meaning the enslaved. Respecting the sanctity of your own pain should/must include acknowledging the magnitude of others’ suffering. We ought not deny or forget that there are those out there for whom nightmarish damnation isn’t an abstract thought.
Imagining hell is a privilege.
Written and co-directed by legendary poet Saul Williams, it’s no wonder “Neptune Frost” feels like technobabbled lyrics. He and director Anisia Uzeyman have made an intersexual, intertextual, sci-fi, musical cinematic poem. Those don’t come around very often. Somehow both obliquely obtuse and affably approachable, the film doesn’t say anything wholly “new” so much as it says old truths with neon trappings, literally chanting painful knowledge many work to “forget.”
Neptune (Elvis Ngabo) escapes his Rwandan village after a priest tries to do what too many priests have done. In an impossibly tender, quiet scene, he somewhat stealthily slips on high heels while fleeing on a boat. Shortly after he makes landfall, he becomes a new Neptune (Cheryl Isheja); she is captivating and haunted. Meanwhile, Matalusa (Bertrand “Kaya Free” Ninteretse) leaves his job as a coltan miner after the death of his brother, Techno. Taking up residence with a collective led by Memory (Eliane Umuhire), Matalusa waits for Neptune to arrive, even though he doesn’t know she exists. When they meet, unlimited power is unleashed. Maybe, just maybe, it will be enough to rock the world that continues to use Black bodies as dispensable fuel for progress.
“Neptune Frost” is hypnotic. About halfway through, the stilted romantic gibberish half-spoken and half-sung clicks, as if a universal translator flicked on. The movie didn’t change at that point, we do. Almost entirely free of linear plot, this isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of absinthe. Some may also flinch at the fluctuation between hallucinatory, dream-like sequences and folks literally chanting obscenities directed at Google.
The eyes that have been rolled at poetry could power the planet fossil free. If spoken word poems leave you checking internal eyelid inscriptions, “Neptune Frost” will be Kryptonite to your attention span. For those of us Digable Planets who are cool like that, it’s a forward-thinking treat. Somewhere between an overlong music video and a LiveJournal post, between a protest song and a rock anthem, “Neptune Frost” is a unique jam, a scream modulated to a better sound. Imagining hell is a privilege, and so is watching this.
Grade = A
Other Critical Voices to Consider
K. Austin Collins at Rolling Stone says “‘Neptune Frost’ mixes the whimsical with the didactic, the earth-bound with the unimagined. Its central motor and primary technology is narrative: oral stories, transmitted and made collective, power our way forward.”
Robert Daniels at Rogerebert.com says “There are no wasted plot points, no unnecessary pieces of dialogue or needless landscapes. Every texture contains a million little stories. It is humbling to see two filmmakers so curious, and so creatively playful as to invite messiness and brilliance.”
Kambole Campbell at Reverse Shot says “Much of contemporary Afrofuturism—in the popular consciousness at least—is conceptualized by African American artists, whether that’s Janelle Monáe or Sun Ra or the more commercial ‘Black Panther’ and its forthcoming sequel. ‘Neptune Frost’ feels like a peek into another world, one where African voices are held aloft over the noise of Western discourse and given equal weight.”