'See You Yesterday' is Netflix's time-traveling attack on police brutality

Produced by Spike Lee, ‘See You Yesterday’ is a sci-fi drama film that world premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

  /  05.09.2019

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

See You Yesterday is a Netflix sci-fi drama film — which was directed by NYU Tisch School of the Arts graduate Stefon Bristol, and co-written by Bristol and Fredrica Bailey — world premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. The 80-minute feature is centered around two black teenage geniuses, CJ Walker (played by Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian Thomas (played by Danté Crichlow), who use time travel to try to prevent CJ’s brother, Calvin (Brian “Stro” Bradley), from being killed by the police. Produced by Spike Lee, the Netflix film is brimming with blackness and entertains just as much as it dismantles the monolithic view of black kids.

Out of a garage, CJ and Sebastian develop temporal relocation packs (TRP), a backpack connected to a smartphone-looking device on their wrist that controls the time traveling. Early in the film, before anyone leaps back in time, See You Yesterday pushes the humanity to the forefront. Two other kids soon arrive at the garage, while CJ and Sebastian are tinkering with their TRP’s, asking CJ for “the juice.” The kids were speaking in code in order to get the computer CJ repaired, as well as cell phone batteries. Right off the bat, viewers see two black teens from the hood secretively selling products to their community that aren’t drugs or guns, which felt refreshing because it didn’t demonize the hustle, but showed multitudes of the game.

“That puts a different light, in media, on what young black kids in the hood actually do. I grew up in Coney Island. I have friends who are in to computers, in to tech, in to anime. They’re in to things other than the quintessential things black kids are supposed to be in to,” Bristol told REVOLT TV during a press roundtable.

See You Yesterday shows a level of care to blackness that is both comforting to watch and helps humanize its characters. There are multiple scenes with black people of different shades that show the time-traveling device’s lighting letting different skin tones shine equally instead of one being saturated or completely lost. Duncan-Smith and Crichlow’s on-screen friendship is the main driver of the film’s plot. Duncan-Smith even revealed that when CJ tells Sebastian, “I love you, black man” and he responds, “I love you, black woman,” there is a sincerity in those words that is unmistakable.

The film does a very nuanced job of never feeling too divorced from reality, even with time constantly changing. In See You Yesterday, CJ thinks simply calling the cops earlier on about a robbery that leads to her brother’s murder would be the easiest way to prevent his death. But, not only does that not work — with the robbery still taking place without any police interference — but, a different young black man dies as a result.

In the world we inhabit, reports have surfaced over the years of police taking more than four times as long to respond to 911 calls in predominantly black neighborhoods, compared to predominantly white neighborhoods. It’s heartbreaking scenes like that which reinforce the depressing notion that certain obstacles for black people are immutable, even if you travel through time. That’s what separates See You Yesterday from most sci-fi films. It uses science fiction to highlight the black experience.

At one point in the film, Sebastian and CJ help save Calvin, but he finds the program for his funeral, which happened before CJ and Sebastian saved him. At that moment, he reveals to CJ that he felt as if he should’ve died instead of another black kid who lost his life. His feelings are rooted in his belief that the deceased young man had more to offer the world than he did. It is one of the most impressive scenes of the movie because it uses time travel to explain the complexities of survivor’s guilt.

“I think the core of the film is we want to focus on the social injustice of police brutality,” Bailey told REVOLT TV. “I think time travel was a tool in which to speak about this issue in a completely different way.”

Duncan-Smith is currently a physics major at Hampton University and says she’s faced difficulties being a black female in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) field. But, the 19-year-old actress attributes filming See You Yesterday to her returning to school “with a different outlook on how I can approach those setbacks or what people tried to impose on me for the past four semesters.” Her co-star Crichlow also drew from his personal life to enhance his dazzling on-screen performance.

“While Sebastian was going through police brutality, there were things that were happening and encounters with police that happened to me personally that I had to bring to Sebastian’s character to humanize him more,” Crichlow told REVOLT TV.

Sometimes the focus on the human aspect over the technology leads to some odd moments. To work on the mechanics of the TRP’s, they put on Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets, while manipulating holograms. While this is a science fiction film, which means there is artistic license to exaggerate a bit, using a VR headset to work on holograms is like Kelly Rowland sending a text message using Microsoft Excel in the “Dilemma” music video. Bristol and Bailey think the time travel was handled with care, and much better than how Avengers: Endgame did, which Bristol considers “terrible.”

“Stefon and I did a lot of research to try and look into the basis of time travel, and real-world research on time travel,” Bailey said.

See You Yesterday was one of the best films at Tribeca Film Festival and surely will be a fan favorite when it drops on Netflix on May 17.

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