Netflix’s “See You Yesterday” blends the discovery of time travel and realities of urban life in this breezy Spike Lee Joint.
In the Stranger Things inspired, youth-centered film, two best friends, high-school age, Black prodigies discover and build, functional, yet portable time travel devices. Along with the discovery of time travel, their lives are disrupted by the challenges of being Black youth in a hostile, modern American city. The underlying premise of this family-friendly film revolves around police brutality and violence on members of the community, which will likely spark some conversations among the tween viewers if they aren’t already familiar with the topic. (TV-MA)
From what I can discover, this story started its life as a fifteen minute short film in 2015 and then found its way into the production stable of Spike Lee’s ‘40 Acres and a Mule.‘ It’s directed by Stefon Bristol and featuring Eden Duncan-Smith as Claudette ‘CJ’ Walker and Dante Crichlow as Sebastian J. Thomas.
It also showcases Astro/Brian Bradley as CJ’s older brother, Calvin Walker, and Marsha Stephanie Blake as CJ’s mother, Phaedra Walker (if you’re like me, you will recognize her, but not remember from where, so I will help you out. She starred in another famous Netflix series, Orange is the New Black as Berdie Rogers, a former counselor at Litchfield Penitentiary.) Yes, there are lots of other actors in this film, if I don’t mention them, it doesn’t mean they don’t matter, they were in the background of this very personal tragedy.
The movie is just under an hour and a half but the lead characters of CJ and Sebastian are both endearing, compelling and yet completely maddening all at the same time. CJ is brilliant and inquisitive, but a spitfire whenever the real world encroaches on anything she’s doing. Sebastian, is the deep thinker, who upon the realization of their discovery was already cautioning against its exploration, with good reason.
The movie opens as so many movies do, by exploring the community, following our protagonists and noting their mundane existence as geeks and relative outcasts, but loved by their mutual families. Sebastian and CJ have their own inner worlds which overlap, but neither is willing to admit they have greater feelings for the other, which is also a nice touch. There is always room for platonic love at the table for me. Their ambitions to attend great universities with complete scholarships seem typical until we see the goods. They talked about inventing time travel in their garage, no less, and their future, pardon the pun, seems assured.
Ultimately, no one invents time travel if they aren’t tempted to use it and our protagonist take their “temporal backpacks” which are both computers and anti-matter power sources all in one for a spin, almost revealing themselves to themselves on their first trip out.
Since this is a story about time travel and there are a lot of those these days, let me save you from yourselves. Don’t look for it to make sense, (any more than any other time travel story does) because like most movies which feature the phenomenon, it doesn’t quite make sense, yet it is thematically solid, if not scientifically accurate. As long as it is reasonable and makes sense in the story, or adds the proper amount of handwavium in the right places, I am akin to a judge when presented with sketchy evidence in court: “I’ll allow it.”
Why I liked this movie…
Because it dares what few films have done to date: It features Black characters engaged in and exploring science. Casually. Almost effortlessly. Enthusiastically. Sebastian and CJ love science the same way super-geek Peter Parker once did, and when confronted by the fantastic, treat it just like they would if they were heading to their local bodega, just something they were going to do today. I love this.
Peter Parker was one of my early scientific inspirations I remember fondly when I was a kid. It didn’t matter that the science was ill-conceived or completely impossible, it was the fact he was interested in it and the story made the idea accessible, plausible and okay to consider. I didn’t have a CJ or a Sebastian but I am thrilled a new generation will.
As I do with all time travel movies, I try to follow the causality and in this one, they do play a bit fast and loose, but they also surprised me at least once and that is hard to do. While there are quite a few people listed as participating in the movie, the story revolves and does its best work when CJ, Sebastian and Calvin are interacting on the screen.
The loss of Calvin and CJ’s father is a palpable family pain and their inability to get along can find its seat in their discomfiture. Sebastian and CJ are dynamic screen presences together and I can see a good future for both of them as they develop their acting chops.
Was there room for improvement?
Since I want to keep this relatively spoiler-free, I will simply say, I liked this film and recognize several things I could say, but I don’t hold against the film in general.
For example: The special effects and props were adequate but not stellar. Yet, I am not bothered by this because I WANT new science fiction films and realize special effects budgets are why more of those films don’t get made.
This film gave us the feeling of the special effects needed at least one time, the virtuality, for example, complete with Oculus-like headsets. The one-time scene of the temporal corridor, the teleportation effect and return sequences. All shown once and then implied afterward for budgetary constraints. But they were effective, affordable and acceptable in their delivery.
CJ’s character was portrayed as many geniuses are, stubborn, irascible, difficult at times and when we first see these traits, we know they will lead to trouble. Such stories often revolve around these flaws and this story was no exception. However, it also managed to make those same attributes admirable when she realized she needed to correct her mistakes. Sebastian, ever the voice of reason, is overshadowed by her dominant presence. He is effective as her conscience and does his level best to protect her from her own enthusiasm with varying degrees of success.
My final verdict:
The film does several things right and a couple of things wrong (in my eyes). I was entertained by the film and its engaging characters. They are thoughtful depictions with just enough stereotype overlay, I could relate to the neighborhood (because it reminded me of my home in the Bronx where I grew up). I was saddened by the theme of police brutality often depicted whenever Black people show up in films. I recognize it is topical and relevant but it hurts my heart whenever I see it on television as part of the Black experience.
A solid and fun piece of writing on the part of Fredrica Bailey (who is the original writer of the first short film) and her co-conspirator and director Stefon Bristol, who, if this work is any indication, will have a fine future as a director. Spike Lee and Matthew Myers were the producers and I think this was a solid piece of science-fiction/fantasy by all concerned. Netflix gets it right this time.
I give it a solid 7 out of 10. Good, clean, time-traveling fun. May it inspire another generation to seek out science and technology for all the right reasons.
Thaddeus Howze is an award-winning writer, editor, podcaster and activist creating speculative fiction, scientific, political and cultural commentary from his office in Hayward, California.
Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. He has published two books, ‘Hayward’s Reach’ (2011), a collection of short stories and ‘Broken Glass’ (2013) an urban fantasy novella starring his favorite paranormal investigator, Clifford Engram.