“Neptune Frost” brings sci-fi beyond the gender binary

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Cheryl Isheja portrays the title character.
Kino Lorber

“Neptune Frost” brings the shock of the new. How many African sci-fi musicals celebrating non-binary heroes have been made? It’s a difficult film to do justice with words: my usual paragraph of plot summary seems beside the point. Writing a song in response would be much more appropriate.

Inspired by its queer co-director Saul Williams’ 2016 album “MartyrLoserKing,” queer director Saul Williams and his partner Anisia Uzeyman made a film full of exuberant music, steeped in mourning and war but erring on the side of hope. It confronts the paradox that technology like smartphones and laptops depends on the brutal exploitation of Africans to mine coltan, while those workers don’t get the benefits of the tech that only exists through their labor.

The title character, an intersex individual who is a runaway, is alternately portrayed by Elvis Ngabo “Bobo” and Cheryl Isheja. After attending the funeral of their mother, they’re followed by “the Authority,” an authoritarian entity tied to a coltan mine in the region. They arrive at a village built from scraps, where hackers sing the praises of using their minds to glitch out the status quo. Neptune teams up with Matalusa (Kaya Free), who is also suffering from the loss of a close relative. Together, they wage war on the exploitative process of mining, leading to a violent reaction from the Authority.

The world of “Neptune Frost” began before this film and spirals out around it. It was originally planned as a cycle of three albums and graphic novel. Listening to “MartyrLoserKing” first will help explain its approach — songs like “Down For Some Ignorance,” originally released on it, are re-purposed here.

Production design is one of the most striking qualities of “Neptune Frost.” Films and TV shows by white artists frequently use a combination of low and hi-tech, such as flickering TVs and old-fashioned computers in decaying buildings, to suggest post-apocalyptic scenarios. “Neptune Frost” creates beauty from extremely lush colorful lighting and such simple means as sci-fi props made from neon tubes, bicycle wheels and circuit boards. If the effects of living with destruction and loss runs through the film, it sees them as the starting point for something more positive.

The special effects of “Neptune Frost” are simple, with trippy computer animations made of colorful shapes representing communion with the machine world. But the aesthetic behind the film is not simple. It exudes a love of color and a belief in its infinite variety. Even the scenes in the mine are coded with reddish-brown dirt — this may be a realistic version of how they look, but it’s still stylized and full of symbolism, as the color hints at dried blood shed by the mine’s workers.

Williams brings a poet’s sense of wordplay to the script of “Neptune Frost,” which is especially impressive since the film is spoken in five languages and his lyrics are translated outside English. Even at the very start, “mine” has a double meaning. “Martyr Loser King” evokes Martin Luther King, but it undergoes a further twist to become the basis for the “Mutalusa Kingdom.”

As technological power interfaces with spiritual power, the film avoids sticking to a clear perspective. Flying pigeons get POV shots. Drones and floating coltan rocks were evidently created with CGI. The color and lighting were carefully designed. A broadcast by a white news anchor is never shown without a host of glitchy effects, but even the banal image of television snow is shot through with color rather than remaining black and white.

It might be possible to write off “Neptune Frost” as a particularly leftfield example of tech-bro optimism if its narrative weren’t so closely based in the realities of neo-colonialism and class exploitation, with lyrics like “hack into land rights and ownership…hack into ambition and greed.” “Neptune Frost” envisions a particularly African queerness, where one song’s chorus celebrates the fact that there’s no need to choose between identifying as a girl and boy and another lyric says “think Black, then think gay.”

Narrative cinema increasingly seems unsuited to the traumas of the last few years and the psychological changes wrought by social media. “Neptune Frost” makes unlikely company with non-binary director Jane Schoenbrun’s “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair” in departing from the clarity of storytelling to depict the impact of technology on LGBTQ people. Williams and Uzeyman’s film ties this rejection of conventional form to a revolt against the gender binary. “Neptune Frost” avoids the pitfalls of global south poverty porn, operating more like a poem without losing touch with reality. That’s very important in a world where Silicon Valley takes inspiration from cyberpunk ideas originally meant as critique.

“Neptune Frost” | Directed by Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman | Kino Lorber | In Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Swahili, French, and English with English Subtitles | Opened June 3rd at the Quad and BAM

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