See You Yesterday (2019) by Stefon Bristol
Review by Courtney Anderson
I’ve always appreciated the science fiction genre from a little bit of a distance.
I’ve been into geeky and/or nerdy shows and movies since I was a kid. I was always particularly interested in fantasy and horror. To me, fantasy and horror were otherworldly without being unrelatable. I could let my imagination run wild without feeling confused or excluded.
I didn’t always have that freedom with sci-fi. While I was into stuff like space and time travel, a lot of the jargon made me feel lost and dumb. The genre can be inaccessible, even to those who really want to watch nerdy shit. That inaccessibility combined with the fact that sci-fi isn’t the most racially diverse of genres ha made the genre feel a little unwelcoming to me at times.
So, that’s why I’m grateful for film’s like See You Yesterday, which is produced by Spike Lee and directed and co-written by a Black up-and-coming director named Stefon Bristol.
See You Yesterday tells the story of a young Black girl named CJ Walker and her best friend Sebastian, played by the two absolutely delightful actors Eden Duncan-Smith and Dante Crichlow respectively. CJ and Sebastian are the smartest kids in their school; they are the very definition of the phrase “science nerds, ” and they’re both focused on working science projects that will get them scholarships to the top schools in the country. Lately, CJ and Sebastian spend all their time working on their most ambitious project: two backpack time-machines. Those two teenagers are literally trying to master time travel.
The wild thing is, it actually works! CJ and Sebastian discover that their backpacks are able to take them back in time. They test it out by going back one day into the past. They establish a “no major changes” rule that CJ promptly breaks after a run-in with her shitty ex-boyfriend. It’s all very exciting and fun!
Well, it’s all exciting and fun until CJ’s brother Calvin is shot and killed by a police officer.
In the immediate aftermath of Calvin’s death, the entire neighborhood erupts into protest, and CJ and Calvin’s mother starts to slip into depression. CJ can’t accept what’s happened to her brother. So, she decides that she needs to travel back in time and stop the officer from killing Calvin.
From there, the movie focuses on the repeated attempts to save Calvin’s life, each attempt more complicated, dangerous and nerve-wracking than the last.
One of my favorite things about this movie is that no matter how complicated the time-travel missions or the technology that made them possible became, the movie never lost focus of reality. Because the movie is very sci-fi-esque. There’s technical jargon and all types of lofty equations throughout. There’s even a Marty McFly reference (complete with a cameo from Michael J. Fox himself!)
But this movie is also very relatable in the way it depicts its Black characters. Bristol and his co-writer Fredrica Bailey gave CJ and Sebastian dialogue that made them feel like (if not just a tad bit vulgar) teenagers. They are in a neighborhood that is full of lively West Indian, played by actors who don’t butcher their accents. Calvin, who’s played by a singer/rapper named Astro, feels like very real, protective older brother who’s just trying to watch out for his family.
Most importantly, the film is rooted in the extremely real, painful reality of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. Bristol and his team came to talk about the unpredictable and devastating nature of police brutality, violence, and death. Bristol wants us to know that the real lives of Black people come first and foremost. The extreme nerdiness is just icing on the cake.
For as much as this movie gives us, I still felt like there were parts that could’ve used more writing. It would’ve been nice to see more development of CJ and Sebastian’s families, and I think it would’ve helped to see more of CJ and Sebastian’s life before they invented time travel.
I also feel like there could’ve been an even deeper examination of the nature of police brutality. This movie just so happens to have come out a little after episode 3 of Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone. The episode, titled “Replay,” has almost the exact same premise as See You Yesterday. A Black mother discovers a device she owns (a camcorder in this case) has the ability to rewind time. She ends up having to use the device to save her teenage son from being killed by a racist cop.
If I were to compare the two episodes, I’d have to say that “Replay” takes a closer look at police violence than See You Yesterday. Where “Replay” is completely centered on the violence that can be enacted by white racists, there’s an incident in See You Yesterday that ends up drawing some of the focus away from police brutality specifically and places it on violence in general.
Nevertheless, I found See You Yesterday to be a poignant, ambitious movie that reckons with Blackness in a way that is rare for the sci-fi genre. It’s nice to be reminded that sci-fi can be for Black people, too. Even the non-nerdy ones.