Time travel is a whole sci-fi subgenre. But if it became science fact, what would you do with so much power? Would you stop the JFK assassination? 9/11? And what about the consequences? How do you control something you can’t foresee?
In 2019’s See You Yesterday, the smartest kids at The Bronx High School of Science — 16-year-old C.J. Walker (Eden Duncan-Smith) and her best friend and classmate Sebastian Thomas (Danté Crichlow) — build a temporal relocation machine in Sebastian’s grandpa’s garage. Their goal is to win the science expo and earn a full ride at the college of their choice, and they haven’t given much thought to the potential of their invention. Then their science teacher, played by Michael J. Fox, poses a question: What does C.J. want to do with the power of time travel?
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See You Yesterday tries to open minds to an unfairness experienced by a specific group of people, like District 9’s commentary on apartheid and the treatment of refugees, or Snowpiercer’s look at the classism of climate change. Here, time travel blends with over-policing in neighborhoods of color. Calls for help go unanswered, but young Blacks are stopped and questioned, usually maliciously and without cause.
After the murder of C.J.’s older brother Calvin (played convincingly by rapper Astro) by police as he leaves a July 4th barbeque, C.J. finally has the answer to the question posed by her teacher. In a memorable scene, she looks straight into the camera, and you can almost see her Black Girl Magic swirling as she turns her brilliant mind towards a plan to go back in time to save her brother. But, as always, the corollary follows. C.J. and Sebastian discover that they can’t control the past when the unexpected consequence of each time incursion has dangerous effects on anyone caught in its ripple.
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See You Yesterday starts as a light teenage nerd romp and transforms into a heavily themed drama. The initial slow pacing and change of tone in the film's middle are flaws. But stay with it, because the last scene is a crucial, easy to misunderstand allegory for the unwavering determination of Black people to stop the repeated police killings that happen in their neighborhoods.
The film won debut director Stefan Bristol and their co-writer Fredrica Bailey Best First Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards. The movie was also produced by Spike Lee, and his influence is clear in its bumping score, Brooklyn setting, and heartfelt approach to sociopolitical issues. The constant reports of police killings numb many people to the senseless violence perpetrated on Black families. But as C.J. and Sebastian’s time travel demonstrates, the probable cost to our society from the loss of Black brilliance should matter not just to the families of victims, but to us all.
See You Yesterday is streaming now on Netflix.