May 5, 2019
by Carla Hay
“See You Yesterday”
Directed by Stefon Bristol
World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on May 3, 2019.
“Back to the Future” meets “Black Lives Matter” could be a superficial way to describe “See You Yesterday,” a time-traveling drama about a teenage girl who goes back in time to prevent the police-shooting death of her older brother. But “See You Yesterday” is not a “Back to the Future” ripoff—it’s a compelling social commentary seen through the eyes of intelligent African American teenagers who are the central characters in the movie.
“See You Yesterday,” the first feature film from Spike Lee protégé Stefon Bristol, is a longer version of Bristol’s short film of the same name, and the movie has the same two lead actors from the short film. Eden Duncan-Smith is Claudette “CJ” Walker and Danté Crichlow is Sebastian Thomas, CJ’s best friend—two high-school students who live in Brooklyn’s East Flatbush neighborhood in New York City. Both teens are aspiring scientists who have been working on a time-traveling machine that can be worn in a backpack. CJ is the type of student who likes to read Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” in class, and she’s essentially the brains behind the time machine.
As with most scientific experiments, things are done with trial and error. The movie begins with CJ and Sebastian’s botched attempts to get the time-traveling invention to work. It’s only a matter of time before they broach the subject of time traveling with their science teacher Mr. Lockhart (played by “Back to the Future” star Michael J. Fox, in a brilliantly cast cameo), who tells them that if time travel were possible, it would be one of the greatest ethical conundrums that people would face, before declaring, “Time travel. Great Scott!” Fans of “Back to the Future” will get this inside joke. (In a Q&A after one of the Tribeca Film Festival screenings of “See You Yesterday,” Bristol said that Fox agreed to be in the movie after Bristol wrote him a letter, and Fox hadn’t even seen the script yet. Before filming was set to begin, Fox broke his hand, but they were able to reschedule filming for Fox several weeks later after he recovered from his injury.)
On their fourth attempt at time travel, CJ and Sebastian succeed on June 29, 2019, and go back in time and then back to the present day. The date that they begin to time travel is significant because of what will happen less than a month later. For now, the two budding scientists decide to keep their time-traveling secret to themselves.
Being a science nerd in tough East Flatbush isn’t easy. CJ and Sebastian constantly have to dodge the crime and street fights that plague their neighborhood. Her 19-year-old older brother Calvin (played by Brian Bradley, also known as Astro or Stro) is a bit of a rebel, but he’s very protective of CJ. She is also dealing with moving on from ex-boyfriend Jared (played by Rayshawn Richardson), a bully who flaunts his new girlfriend in front of CJ. It’s clear that when Jared and CJ were together, he did not treat her well, and their relationship ended badly. But Jared keeps doing things to irritate CJ, so it isn’t long before big brother Calvin gets involved. When police arrive, an unarmed Calvin reaches for his cell phone, and gets shot to death by a cop. The date is July 14, 2019.
After going through this devastating loss, CJ comes up with the idea to go back in time to prevent Calvin from dying. Sebastian is extremely reluctant at first, but he goes along with the plan when he sees that there’s no talking CJ out of it. What happens next in the movie can’t be described without giving away spoilers, but it’s enough to say that “See You Yesterday”—like other stories about time travel—does treat the issue of changing the past in order to alter the future as a serious ethical dilemma that can have unexpected consequences. The movie also has a message that unnecessary police brutality is not going away anytime soon.
Bristol, who co-wrote the screenplay with Frederica Bailey, authentically captures modern-day Brooklyn, with the young characters talking like how real teenagers would talk, including a fair amount of cursing. If you watch “See You Yesterday” closely, there’s also a scene in the movie that’s a nod to Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” It’s refreshing that the inventor of the time machine in this story is a teenager, because an adult would be more likely to seek fame, riches and/or glory from such an invention, whereas a teenager would be more likely to keep it a secret from adults. Above all, “See You Yesterday” shows people, no matter what their age, that life is not about changing the past but how we move forward.
Netflix will premiere “See You Yesterday” on May 17, 2019.