Death Can Set You Free

Unanimous goldmine! I have a question for you. How can someone possibly be born in their 23rd year? Where is the line between Man and Woman? How does it smell when the Motherboard bleeds? What does the Earth sound like? What do you do when The Authority has nukes, and you’re just a bunch of kids? These are only some of the questions posed by 2021’s Neptune Frost, an afrofuturist musical film directed by American musician Saul Williams and Rwandan cinematographer Anisia Uzeyman.

Top to bottom, I loved this film. The music, the costumes, the bicycle man, the dove, the giant floating rocks, the land of dreams, even the prophetic dialogue had me on the edge of my seat. The film begins with a lot of questions that Williams and Uzeyman don’t even begin to answer until about the hour mark. As a long-time science fiction fan, I enjoyed wondering, “Yo what the actual shit is happening right now?” For the first two thirds of the movie. If can stomach learning about a new reality and want to go in blind, which I recommend, SKIP THE NEXT PARAGRAPH FOR THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD. And if not, that’s cool.

Shovels and pickaxes chink into a Burundi coltan quarry, with many of the young laborers dressed in greys and oranges that match their boulderous surroundings. An overseer towers over the laborers, clutching his assault rifle as young men mine a mineral critical for computer chips in smartphones. Tekno stops. He puts down his pickaxe. The Earth hums the sweet song of a summer synth wave. He bends down and picks up the rock at his feet. Hearing the Earth’s beautiful song, he holds the heartpiece above his head, like a treasure, or an idol, or a messiah. And then suddenly, without warning, the overseer strikes the stone with the butt of his rifle, plunging the rock into Tekno’s face and killing him. He falls to the ground a cooling sack of meat, his brother Matalusa weeping over the dead body. They hear drums in the background. The camera pans, and some of the miners now play traditional drums, pounding and wailing to the beat of the shovels and pickaxes. And when Tekno finally awakens, it’s as Neptune, the woman she always dreamed of being.

Neptune Frost features the coolest, most interesting portrayal of a trans person I’ve ever seen. Walking through an undersaturated, idyllic land of dreams, the titular Neptune narrates:

Time held a mirror and reflected a world of parallels
of fear and longing,
with no sense of belonging.
But that dissonance became a song in me.
What should have destroyed me
what attempted to gender or “boy” me
Set me free.

It’s here that I realized, about halfway through the film, that the odd choice to have the male Tekno narrate with a female voice wasn’t odd at all, it was because Tekno has always dreamed of becoming Neptune. And Neptune Frost is Neptune’s story. Neptune told it to me, sung it to me, danced it to me. At first, I didn’t want to believe Neptune. The things that attempt to “boy” or “gender” me in my life are not the same as in hers. I doubt that if I die, about an hour later I’ll wake up a super hot hacker genius. But still I thought to myself, how the fuck can she say that all that shit sets her free?

At the heart of Neptune Frost is Digitaria, a haven for the coltan-miners-turned-anarchist-hackers. Inspired by electronic waste landfills, Digitaria boasts giant keyboard key huts, refuse circuit boards, and kids decked out in neon chrome. When Neptune arrives, she stops speaking in prose. When others address her, she responds in poetry, in gospel, the stuff of messiahs. And for me this was evidence that she is a trans fantasy. Dubbed “The Motherboard,” she glitches in and out of existence as she becomes one with the digital heart of the land. She leaves logical conversation behind because she is a dream, a spirit. She, like much of science fiction, is “impossible.” And yet, she is. At least in my life, this contradiction is the heart of the trans experience. Never before have I seen such a powerful reflection of my own experience with gender in any piece of media. Neptune Frost is Neptune’s story because she has literally trans-scended the material plane. The film ends with her staring at the camera, arm outstretched, thrashing in and out of this world. And she is beautiful.

Everyone Knows How To Tango: Does Race Exist in the World of RENT? Revised

Hale: Hello! I’m Hale.

Mady: and I’m Mady.

H: And we’re students at Vanderbilt University. 

M: And we just watched the film version of RENT (2005). 

H: And it was really weird! 

M: I always go back and forth about whether I actually like RENT.

H: This was my first time, and it was certainly a trip. For those who don’t know, it tells the story of a bunch of couch-surfing, rent-not-paying, bohemian-rhapsody-ing, artist types in Alphabet City during the AIDS epidemic.

M: Rent is really trying to represent diverse perspectives. It has all these different characters going through very real experiences. I find it hard to talk about Rent starting out because I feel like it’s supposed to be taken in all at once.

H: Right, and when you compare it to other media about the AIDS crisis like Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, RENT seems watered down in comparison.

M: I see what you are saying. I mean, the only time the hardship of AIDS is brought up in RENT is with the character Angel’s death. It’s a hardship in life too, not just in death 

H: Yeah, if they are trying to represent diverse perspectives within economic crises too, where did all their money come from to do the things they are doing?

M: Well, the character Joane is a lawyer but I’m not sure if she’s necessarily providing. Also, that guy Roger just picked up his life and went to Santa Fe? No one in economic distress could actually do that.

H: What’s up with that cow udder shit?

M: I don’t know. Modernist art and mooing?

M: I mean I think part of the goal with the diversity in the casting is that you can’t talk about the AIDS epidemic without talking about the Black community. Because of the higher presence of AIDS in that community and how it caused an increase in racism and homophobia.

H: How come none of that is in the script then? It can’t be a casual representation without recognizing that race affects life. Only a white person can say race isn’t an important part of life.Just because RENT has a racially diverse cast doesn’t mean it actually portrays diverse perspectives.

M: What do you think about Mimi, Ben, or Joanne? How would that character change if it were played by a white person?

H: If race isn’t talked about, you are just effectively white. For instance, in video games where they give you this whole range of skin colors but don’t include the actual experience of race and ethnicity, it’s all effectively white.

M: Yeah, like Rent decided to be diverse for the purpose of being diverse and not for the purpose of showing the struggles of those people. Rent doesn’t really show homophobia or racism, just the idea of being a starving artist.

H: Nobody gets to be their race, they are all white.

M: They all have the same cookie-cutter struggles. You could change anyone’s race and it wouldn’t change the plot. So it kind of misses the mark of representation.

H: Also, it’s very convenient that Benny is Black. Like a rich white landlord is an unprofitable look for them.

M: And that would be more truthful.

H: The movie is also mostly the original Broadway cast.

M: The two main characters are white men, they’re the center of the plot. And the fact that this is the og cast means this is Jonathan Larson’s intent and they wanted to keep it that way. Which is important because he died right before the first showing of rent. It’s also why the number “La Vie Boheme” is performed the way it is, with the cast dancing on top of tables and across the diner. They had originally decided to perform the show by just sitting at three tables, singing it through, but when “La Vie Boheme” hit, they couldn’t contain themselves and they performed the rest of the show as it was meant to be. So “La Vie Boheme” is usually performed with three tables pushed together.

H: So it’s stiff in some ways because they want to keep Jonathan Larson’s idea.

M: Yeah, like how West Side Story changed, but they didn’t change all the bad parts. Not erasing history, but this is for multiple reasons.

H: Moving to “La Vie Boheme” though, protagonist white guy Mark is the most racialized person in RENT as a Jewish man, but he’s also white.

M: Yeah they even include the Mourner’s Kaddish in “La Vie Boheme.” References to Jewish culture throughout are almost the only references to any culture at all.

H: The cast are singing about how great it is to be indie, edgy, cool, and starving, but then the song kind of devolves into just singing the names of stuff that they all like. When the cast sings their joy at “Being an us for once instead of them” they show an interracial couple. They just kind of throw them in there.

M: It’s everything all at once again: gay, interracial, AIDS, drugs…not really representing in any way, just showing.

H: Besides race, you can’t tell who those background people are. They are essentially white.

M: And then later when they say, “rice and beans and cheese” and then “huevos rancheros” they are just trying to fit Spanish culture into there also.

H: The whole musical is “look! we all like the same white guys!”

M: They say “homo sapiens” after bisexual and trisexual as in we are all human but we all also a little gay, which slay, but there is difficulty with being gay. They’re trying to show unity but…their experiences are actually different.

H: So the answer is no: race does not exist in the world of Rent.

M: Yeah, but everyone knows how to tango!

That’s a lot of dames!

Who writes the words and music

for all the girly shows?

No one cares and no one knows.

Who is the handsome hero

some villain always frames?

But who cares if there’s a plot or not

if they’ve got a lot of dames?

These lyrics come from the song “Dames” from the musical 42nd Street. With playful music draped over them, you might interpret these sleazy lyrics as satirical, honest, or even critical. But the 2017 West End revival of 42nd Street is none of these. From Hamilton to Newsies, it plainly states the political mission of many musicals: to distract viewers from bad politics with song and dance.

The show’s “handsome heroes” sing the above lyrics, suggesting that “Dames” is a man-to-man conversation. One could argue that director Mark Bramble, choreographer Randy Skinner, lyricists Al Dubin and Johnny Mercer, and composer Harry Warren are poking fun at “unsophisticated” Broadway conventions. But the next section of the song continues:

What cute about a little cutie?

It’s her beauty, not brains!

Old father time will never harm you

if your charm still remains!

After you’ve grown old baby

you don’t have to be a cold baby.

Keep young and beautiful

[Chorus] Oh yes!

It’s your duty to be beautiful

[Chorus] Oh yes!

Keep young and beautiful

If you want to be loved.

[Chorus] Oh yes! Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes!

Even though women sing these lines on stage, men wrote, set to music to, and choreographed them, making women sing them in nude leotards. Underneath the playful musical exterior is a clear, patriarchal message: only girls beautiful enough for Broadway get to find love. The number then features a dance break, where the countless, nameless chorus girls, costumed to look naked, dance for the spectator’s male viewing pleasure. These women are cute, dainty, basically naked, and most importantly, nameless, so that audiences don’t have to think too hard about whether or not they should take one home tonight.

The song ends with the triumph of Broadway spectacle. The orchestra plays a fanfare as the beautiful, nameless dames parade around stage wearing extravagant dresses and accompanied by tuxedoed heroes. The music reaches a victorious crescendo as the leading lady, dressed in brilliant white, graces center stage like Venus in the jaws of a shark. Therefore “Dames” is not satirical because it does exactly what it pretends to make fun of: sexualizing unnamed chorus girls. And this is not an accident; it’s the result of a long list of decisions made by men to exploit young women for profit.

A musical that celebrates the history of Broadway, 42nd Street puts its female performers on a pedestal without stopping to think about the bigger picture. The antifeminist overtones of “Dames” carry through the rest of the show and the history of the stage on which it stands. 42nd Street asks the fundamental question: what is the point of a Broadway musical? The answer: dames!

But the song and dance do not cover up the monstrosity beneath. To leave the message and meaning out of the overall analysis of a production misses the point. For in 42nd Street, the costuming, choreography, music, set design, and writing objectify the female cast. It celebrates the trend that producers can reinforce whatever structures of evil they want, as long as they wrap it up in song and dance. Personally, I’m tired of illusions, and even more tired of settling for “fun” shows with abysmal politics. Instead of celebrating their roots, those who write American musicals need to take a good look at the past and realize that the present can be so much better.