The best-known song by Saul Williams might be “List of Demands (Reparations).” Over a propulsive post-punk beat, Williams raps about his pervasive anger about slavery’s generational trauma and an urgent need to change how Black people are treated in America. The chorus goes, “I got a list of demands written on the palm of my hands/ I ball my fist and you’re gonna know where I stand/ We’re living hand to mouth! Hand to mouth!” The accompanying music video is similarly intense because Williams never averts his piercing gaze away from the camera, and the Black bodies behind him move with hypnotic choreography. It has been over a decade since Williams released that song, but in Neptune Frost, the new film he co-directed with Anisia Uzeyman, his anger has only become more acute.
It is difficult to summarize what happens in this film, and that is on purpose. Perhaps, to Williams and Uzeyman, plot would get in the way of mood and immersion. What they offer instead is undiluted spectacle, an Afrofuturist musical fantasia with a markedly anti-capitalist point of view. The film is set in an unnamed African country, one where young people mine for coltan, a valuable metal. But the death of a colleague spurs a need for revolution. As the characters become radicalized, led by charismatic radicals, some of the rhetorical flourishes are bitterly funny, like when one person adopts “Martyr Loser Kingdom” as their new name. If that is too subtle, there are moments where others hold their middle fingers high in the sky.
The Afrofuturist conceit, both in terms of imagery and music, are what make the film so arresting. Costumes are inventive reappropriations of obsolete technology: One character wears a jacket made out of discarded keyboard keys, while another one wears multicolored wires as jewelry, contorting their shape into something beautiful and otherworldly. All these characters are deeply aware they are seen as disposable, and their chant-based songs are their way to develop a shared ideology, or mission statement. Drums and vocals are the only instruments available to them, but Williams—who wrote all the music—includes psychedelic distortion and weird loops to deepen the sense of atmosphere. All the film is subtitled, even when the characters speak in English (it is usually during a song when they opt for four-letter words).
The political is also personal in Neptune Frost, an idea that’s introduced because two actors play Neptune, the closest character the film has to a protagonist. Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo play Neptune, their nonbinary gender suggesting these people have evolved beyond the gender binary status quo that keeps so many of us pigeonholed. There is a heartbreaking early scene where a priest attempts to abuse Neptune, causing them to run away, and later a corrupt government official manifests their internalization of the status quo through attempted violence. This is why Neptune turns to a hacker collective, one where strength through numbers is more important than any technological disruption. Williams and Uzeyman show how the current capitalist system leads to modern slave labor, and not just by deepening the gap between rich and poor. It denies people their identity, and the purest freedom of expression is the only salve.
Williams got his start in slam poetry, while Uzeyman is an actor and playwright. The traditions of poetry and theater are the best way to understand Neptune Frost, or better yet, the ways to remind us that not all films need to be comforting entertainments. At first, Neptune Frost provokes the audience by what it omits, and then it adds self-aware details that make the audience more participatory than a typical viewer. Characters routinely break the fourth wall as the imagery distorts into cyberpunk special effects, as if the figures on screen hijack their agenda away from the filmmakers themselves. Williams has not forgotten his list of demands, but through Neptune and others, he is done compromising how he will communicate them.
Neptune Frost opens at AFI Silver on June 17.