Neptune Frost and Black Panther have very different approaches to very similar content. Both films create a utopian refuge where Africans can escape the racism and cruelty of the outside world, but Black Panther is a hero’s journey designed to appeal to the western mainstream, while Neptune Frost is a radical outburst of political abandon.
There are many descriptors that can be attached to Neptune Frost. It is an aggressive, anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, anti-West, message that is hurled at the audience. It is also a reverie of music, Afro-futurist-inspired transcendence, and cyberpunk-fueled anger. Writer and director Saul Williams, and co-writer Anisia Uzeyman make their stance very clear by having numerous characters give the camera the middle finger throughout the film.
Neptune Frost’s premise is relatively straightforward, but the presentation is anything but. The film begins in a mine where exploited workers dig for coltan, a metal used in cell phones. The workers escape the mine and find a special zone in the forest where they can live together peacefully and reflect on their lives. This simple plot is fractured into a series of ideas about liberation. Not just liberation from oppressive working conditions, but from all of western culture. It does not advocate for a return to the old Nigerian traditions but champions a blending of new and old into a completely new paradigm. They scavenge the values of their oppressors, their ancestors, and the revolutionaries who came before them to cobble together something loose, adaptable, and innovative.
In the safety of their hideaway, they deconstruct technology, gender, economics, and all the ways culture controls us, both subtle and overt. The binary code of computer systems is compared to the binary code of both gender roles, as well as the slave and master relationship.
Black Panther endeavors to wrestle with similar issues, but does so with a far more gentle touch. A touch that will not offend its audience. Essentially the two films represent two classic approaches to advocating for change, one from within and one from without. To instigate change, there are those who agitate for outright revolution, and then there are those who work from within the system, patiently fostering incremental change within the given power structure. To work within the Hollywood system of blockbusters, a film must tread lightly toward small changes that the mainstream can digest while carefully avoiding anything that might offend or frighten them. This method allows you to utilize the enormous power of the commercial film industry which can speak to millions of people around the world.
Neptune Frost is unwilling to compromise and so reaches directly for the explosives. Every Hollywood convention, every popular trope is destroyed and replaced with new ideas of narrative and representation. Both the form and the content seek to liberate themselves from the hegemony of convention.
Even the dialogue is torn apart into a poetic cascade of free association and abstracted symbolism. Certain phrases are repeated throughout the film like “Martyr Loser King.” After you hear it said a few times you realize it is a riff on Martin Luther King. Then you are left to grapple with what it means. One of the protagonists breaks the fourth wall and says, “I am Martyr Loser King” directly to the audience. The delivery sounds somewhat triumphant, but the words are confusing. Martyr is an honorific, Loser is the opposite, and King is a position of power. Loser can be a value-neutral label for someone who has lost, and in an anti-colonial context, King can be a negative moniker. The phrase is like a möbius strip of associations that both assaults western conventions of heroism while simultaneously uplifting them.
This sort of challenging dialogue is not found in Black Panther for two different reasons. Firstly, it is too far from what the mainstream is willing to consider. Martin Luther King must be preserved as a one-dimensional hero beyond reproach, a featureless symbol of civil rights. Secondly, because the phrase is not simple enough. This sort of wordplay is too unstable to feature in something mainstream. Formally, it is subversive because it can not be easily understood.
Subversive and challenging films like Neptune Frost will never garner the tiniest fraction of Black Panther’s audience. Wordplay with loaded terms, frequent “fuck yous” to the audience, and radical departures from cinematic convention, condemn Neptune Frost to the margins where it most likely will be left to preach to the choir or the intellectuals and cinema critics.
For all its breaking of traditions, Neptune Frost is similar to other anti-colonialist films like Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare or Christoph Schlingensief’s United Trash. All these films address the relationship between the first world and the third world. They all position the third world as scavengers, rummaging through the first world’s detritus and repurposing everything they find.
The third world sees and understands the first world in a way that the first world can never comprehend. The third world sees the first world from underneath, where the first world dare not look. In order to function, the first world must live in denial about what it takes to fuel its standard of living. The internet is a sleek and facile bazaar of ideas and consumer products, but it is propped up by the same oppression that has always borne the burden of the first world’s pleasures. It’s not the ones and zeros that are the deep foundation of the internet, it is the metals in its machines and the coal in its furnaces that comprise the true underbelly.
In Neptune Frost, the Internet is a constant theme. The characters see that the internet illuminates the world, but keeps the third world invisible. The miners are the material pillars holding up the cyber-world, but they are deep underneath it in the shadows. At one point, a character proclaims that the burning bush was a firewall. The burning bush is turned into a symbol of how Judeo-Christian ideology that separates the two worlds. It is a conduit for Moses, but a barrier for them. It prevents access to the West’s new god, its new paradise, the internet.
These poetic nuggets of association are only possible in the chaotic clutter of a deconstructed film. Black Panther requires concrete messaging that can be pinned down, defined, and digested.
Black Panther makes specific reference to these differing approaches. To Marvel’s credit, Erik Killmonger, the antagonist, is not a one-dimensional supervillain but a symbol of the impatient revolutionary. He, in many ways, represents the messaging behind Neptune Frost. He will not settle for long-term peaceful change. Whereas, T’Challa represents the more patient incremental approach.
The patient approach may be safer and even more effective, but it also may be the result of not having to work in, or witness firsthand, things like a coltan mine.
In the trailer for Black Panther, they use samples from Gil Scott-Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, including the titular line. This neatly encapsulates the entire issue. Gil Scott Heron’s point is that the networks prevent anything truly revolutionary from being broadcast, but Marvel endeavors to do exactly that. In an effort to “televise” the revolution, Marvel must alter Heron’s sentiment to temper its potency by diluting its meaning, which only proves Heron’s point. Heron’s message has to be cut into tiny, digestible soundbites that won’t upset the audience, and then set to a hip hop beat while explosions and kung fu dazzle viewers in their seats.
Neptune Frost uses the same medium but makes an effort to defy the medium’s traditions. In fact, there are several parts of the film where conventional television makes a physical effort to push the film off the screen and replace it with the mainstream evening news. The two messages fight in a flurry of static and jump-cuts to gain control over the screen.
Black Panther and Neptune Frost may be very different, but they are not apples and oranges. It might be said that to bring about change, both are needed. The revolutionary provides the integrity and momentum, the negotiator provides a means by which the radical ideologies can engage with the predominant power structure. They need not be mutually exclusive.
Neither Black Panther nor Neptune Frost was entirely successful. Black Panther undermines itself with conventional tropes and Neptune Frost eschews so many conventions it can get ponderous. Neptune Frost has more to offer, but it will be offered to a smaller audience. Black Panther made over a billion dollars at the box office. Neptune Frost has made 54,000.
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