In ‘See You Yesterday,’ time travelers can’t escape the ugly present
New Spike Lee production brings Black Lives Matter to the science fair
Not even scientific genius has the power to outrun unscrupulous police.
That’s the macabre but justifiable takeaway from See You Yesterday, the debut feature film from director Stefon Bristol, streaming Friday on Netflix.
Two science-loving best friends, Claudette “CJ” Walker (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian J. Thomas (Danté Crichlow), are on a mission to turn back time. The two built a nifty set of personalized time machines that fit in their backpacks and will suck them through a wormhole, where they’ve got roughly 10 minutes to course-correct their lives before heading back to the present.
Co-written by Bristol and Fredrica Bailey and produced by Spike Lee, See You Yesterday at first appears to be a fun science fiction ride that happens to be about two West Indian kids obsessed with physics. Michael J. Fox makes a cameo as their science teacher. When she’s not tinkering with her time-traveling jetpack, CJ plunges into books such as Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. CJ and Sebastian live in East Flatbush, the heart of West Indian Brooklyn, New York, and they face questions about their relationship status from nosy grandparents who admonish them in accented English to please stop making things go boom in the garage.
But everything explodes when CJ sees her older brother Calvin (Astro) shot and killed by police for a bodega robbery he didn’t commit. Just like that, the stakes of time travel immediately ratchet from something that could win Sebastian and CJ the Westinghouse Award to a way to save a life — if only they can figure out how to properly wield their newfound power.
And so See You Yesterday takes a hard, grief-stricken turn, one that feels especially odd given the overall lighthearted tone Bristol chooses to tell the story. But thematically, it aligns with the “Replay” episode of Jordan Peele’s reimagining of The Twilight Zone, in which a mother played by Sanaa Lathan keeps trying to prevent her son from being killed by a bloodthirsty Virginia state trooper with the aid of a magic camcorder that rewinds life with the touch of button.
When black men and boys are targeted by police, it is their mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts and cousins who are left to pick up their broken bits of their grief and make something of it. Or, in these two cases, try to prevent their deaths from happening in the first place.
In The Hate U Give, Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder after she witnesses her friend get fatally shot by a police officer. In See You Yesterday and “Replay,” that trauma takes on an even more tortuous edge. Not only do the women see their loved ones killed, they’re convinced that they can prevent it from happening, and so they try, over and over and over.
As CJ, Duncan-Smith gives a note-perfect performance, as do Thomas and Astro. But no matter the inspired cinematography or considered, authentic performances, these stories carry a weight of inevitability as they suck every particle of hope out of the air.
An unshakable fatalism blows through both “Replay” and See You Yesterday. The male characters eventually surrender to fate, leaving the anguished women who love them tilting at windmills to revive what is gone.
I don’t fault Bristol or Peele for refusing to make work that would make them seem like Pollyannas. Rather, it’s a shame that black innocence has been decimated so completely that even a film about earnest, time-traveling teens cannot outrun the weight of impending death and injustice at the hands of the state.