Imagining counter-futures

The film 'Neptune Frost' reduces the gulf between Africanfuturism and Afrofuturism by connecting their shared vision against violent systems of domination.

Still from Neptune Frost, 2021.

Neptune Frost is a film that does not comfortably conform to either the Afrofuturism of African American imagination or the more recent Africanfuturism of contemporary African creatives. Directed by Rwandan Anisia Uzeyman and African American Saul Williams, this musical film is a trans-temporal, trans-local, and multi-genre visualscape of vibrant colors, poetic punchlines, and audioscapes in rap and song that re-emphasizes the centrality of dreams, music, imagination, and aesthetics to inspire possibilities of liberation. The film employs indigenous musical instruments, cyberpunk, queer bodies, and a dreamscape to draw attention to coltan mining on the African continent. Coltan, used  to produce devices ranging from cellphones to electric vehicle batteries, is extracted under violent conditions, fueling conflict and immiseration, predominantly in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The multilingual musical performed in Swahili, Kinyarwanda, French, and English is set in Burundi and shot in Rwanda. In palimpsestic style, a post-war city has layered upon it the “otherwise worlds” of dreamscape and a hidden ancestral village called Digitaria. A group of war refugees who mutate into techno-hacker revolutionaries are led by Neptune (played by Elvis Ngabo and Cherly Isheja) and Matalusa (played by Bertrand Ninteretse, aka Burundian rapper Kaya Free) who reconstitute normative love and subvert the longstanding extractivist narrative in which Black bodies labor and die digging materials below the earth’s surface. Their subversion happens through becoming actors in “techno futures” akin to John Akomfrah’s time-traveling data thief, in The Last Angel of History, who searches the Afro-internet archive to assert that the line between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.

The film follows the life of Neptune, who goes through two metamorphoses: one transexual and another to become what a priestess calls the “Motherboard.” Appearing first in the masculine form, Neptune’s voice speaks over the scene of their aunt’s funeral revealing that they were born in their 23rd year. Neptune’s birth happens in dreams and the unconscious with another dreamer, Matalusa, a miner, who is brought to the dreamscape after the loss of his brother Tekno at the hands of a mine watchman. The neon-colored dreamscape dazzles the curious new lovers while a poetic “Wheelman” oracle inspires them to hack the internet. A wandering Matalusa or MartyrLooserKing, inspired no doubt by Saul Williams’ album by the same title, is the “chosen leader of the tribeless,” rebellious miners who hold the code to the drum beat—the transcendent technology of after-life.

Neptune Frost seamlessly references Afrofutusist docu-films, such as The Last Angel of History, and foregrounds African experiences similar to Africanfuturist films, such as Angola’s Air Conditioner, Kenya’s Pumzi, and Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Lagoon. The term Afrofuturism comes into circulation through Mark Dery’s definition of it as an African American treatment of “techno-culture;” “a signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.” However, Black aesthetics that time bend, highlight the agency of Black and female characters, and imagine alternative futures of Blackness can be found in earlier works such as Du Bois’ “The Comet” and Octavia Butler’s Parables Series.

Africanfuturism, one word, is an even younger term coined by Okorafor, who reminds us that “Africa is not a country, it is a diverse continent,” which has writers distinct from Afrofuturists because their concerns are “rooted in African culture, history, mythology and point-of-view.” Neptune Frost centers the African subject, “what is and can/will be” here, and from this location, hacks the world wide web and Western neoliberalism in a way that makes it both situated in the contexts Africanfuturism concerns itself with, and is invested in what Kodwo Eshun calls the “counter-futures” of Afrofuturism. Just as the bird in the film title named Frost, is an Afromythological symbol of sight, which Memory can access through her connection to it, the land of Digiteria is the possibility of a counter-future already available in the present.

The musical film transcends genre distinctions to connect African land and labor exploitation to global extractivist culture and collective resistance through technological code generated from drum beats. In this world, Africa is neither pre-modern nor pre-technological, but possesses its own distinct practices and resources. The drum and drummers are not alternatives to the current culture of violence, they are dormant forces hidden in plain sight, much like Digitaria—a realm not in outer space, but on African soil—beyond a penetrable, invisible veil that is powered when by queer love and a Black collective conscious of the technology within the Black body.

Neptune Frost is an aesthetic collaboration that can reduce the gulf between Africanfuturism and Afrofuturism—which often bleeds into African and African American division—and instead finds commonality in a shared vision against violent neoliberal, heteronormative, patriarchal systems of domination.

Further Reading