‘See You Yesterday’: A Netflix film about police killings of African Americans
Eden Duncan-Smith and Dante Crichlow

First-time feature filmmakers, director Stefon Bristol and his co-writer Fredrica Bailey have aimed for, and largely achieved an almost impossible goal. Their Netflix movie See You Yesterday grafts an angry response to the pandemic of unjustified police killings of young Black men to an upbeat, uplifting and often humorous time-travel fantasy. If even tragedy can be treated with a light touch, it might have something to do with the fact that the producer of this film is none other than Spike Lee, a master of genre fusion, who helped guide the film into existence at Netflix.

The film is set in New York City, where bright teenagers of many backgrounds attend Bronx High School of Science. We meet two of them on the last day of school before summer recess. The college-bound best friends Claudette Josephine (C.J.) Walker (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian Thomas (Dante Crichlow) live in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, and they have set up a scientific workshop in the family garage. There they perform wondrous repairs on their neighbors’ and family members’ iPhones and laptops while creating a time-travel machine to unveil at the forthcoming youth science expo.

But life intervenes—or rather, death—and they speed up their work. C.J.’s older brother Calvin (Astro) has been killed by New York City police who were hunting down some robbers of a nearby convenience store. The death is especially traumatic because the Walker father and husband, a much decorated U.S. military man, had been killed in action (Iraq? Afghanistan? We don’t know, but we see the Purple Heart medal).

So the aspiring inventors, with C.J. taking the lead, quickly engage their probing scientific minds to work out the final kinks on two time machines to transport themselves back one day and change the course of events that led to Cal’s death.

Although they do indeed succeed in going back in time, adding a magical realist element and many humorous moments to the story—“We invented temporal relocation!”—the film traces the unintended consequences of their several frustrated attempts to alter history. It takes some mental gymnastics on the viewer’s part to keep track of the multiple switches in time frames.

The film ends with one final race to re-set the clock, but the audience will have to decide what the outcome might be. Should C.J. finally get it right, all will return to normal and everyone can breathe a deep sigh of relief that in the end no harm has been done. If she fails, a viewer might cynically have to conclude that police killings are simply a fact of Black urban life and nothing will change it. This was Stefon Bristol’s own explanation in answer to a question at the post-viewing discussion at USC where he appeared with Fredrica Bailey on Feb. 5.

See You Yesterday has a lot going for it. We see a fair amount of the vivid and variegated Black community in New York—not just African Americans but many also from the Caribbean. Bristol said he himself is from Guyanese background, which figures into the cast of characters (the flag of Guyana is displayed prominently).

Filming in New York City exposes viewers to the active street life in working-class immigrant neighborhoods that tourists would seldom see. We see instances of police harassment in the immigrant and Black communities that casual sightseers also would not witness. After a succession of killings, Black Lives Matter stages rounds of demonstrations intended to heighten consciousness and demand justice.

It’s essential that C.J. is the lead character, a young woman of color with an intensely focused brain for science. The family environment is largely supportive, although no one besides Sebastian has much of a clue as to what they are devising in their garage laboratory. The film is also a fine object lesson in the scientific process: VR goggles allow them to collaborate in virtual three-dimensional space, and although the language the young researchers speak is a kind of sci-fi gibberish, the discipline of failure and learning from mistakes, with ever more repetition and escalating dangers, is the very essence of increasing knowledge of the universe. Young viewers will surely be impressed and inspired.

C.J. and Sebastian also have a scientifically-minded friend from a Puerto Rican background, Eduardo (Johnathan Nieves), who has an unrequited crush on C.J. He contributes his scientific part, the large energy capacity the new time machines require, after C.J. tells him, “Give us the quantum circuit boards and I’ll go on a date with you.” Refreshing is the absence of discriminatory attitudes among different cultures in New York (except for the cops). Yet this quotable exchange between C.J. and Sebastian expresses unmistakably the African-American pride that lights up the entire film: “I love you, black man,” she tells him. “I love you too, black woman.”

One small but questionable detail seems worth noting: Calvin’s tombstone is already in place within days of his killing. That does not seem possible, although in a time-travel genre perhaps it’s beyond the realm of logic.

Interestingly, as Bristol revealed, the two lead actors are themselves close friends, which could well account for their fine rapport in the film. In addition, Eden Duncan-Smith is quite knowledgeable about science and is now pursuing her college education at Hampton University.

Runtime for the film is 84 minutes. It won Best Non-Theatrical Release award from the Online Film Critics Society. (It will not be screening in theaters: For the foreseeable future, it’s only available on Netflix.)

Accomplished and often amusing cinematography, especially as the time-travel energy is released and wormholes into time are opened, is by Felipe Vara de Rey. The impressive musical score is by Michael Abels. The trailer can be viewed here.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic. His latest project is translating the fiction of Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese. The first book, Five Days, Five Nights, is available from International Publishers NY.

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