See You Yesterday, directed by Stefon Bristol and produced by Spike Lee, is a film about two young black teenagers, C.J. Walker and Sebastian Thomas, inventing time travel (or as they call it, temporal displacement). During the movie C.J.’s brother, Calvin is shot and killed by police and CJ. spends the duration of the movie to try and undo her brother’s murder. See You Yesterday covers themes of race, police brutality, and moral questions of time travel, while occasionally referencing other works of fiction and even non-fiction.
This was my second time watching the film, the first time being a little over a year ago. This time I feel I’ve picked up on a few smaller details that I may have missed during my first watch through. An example being the books that C.J., Sebastian, and Mr. Lockhart (the teacher), are reading in the second scene (03:24). C.J. is reading Stephen Hawken’s A Brief History of Time, Mr. Lockhart is reading Kindred by Octavia Butler, a novel about time travel, and Sebastian is reading a graphic novel called Black by Kwanza Osajyefo and Tim Smith. When I first watched this movie I initially noticed the books that C.J. and Mr. Lockhart were reading, but did not recognize the book Sebastian was reading until hearing about it sometime after my first viewing of the film and having recently read the graphic novel myself. Black is a graphic novel where only black people have powers, due to a certain particle known as quarks. I think it’s interesting how it relates black people to having superpowers to how in this film two young black students invented time travel and can sort of harness that energy. In the film, they are the only ones who are shown using the machines for time travel. C.J.’s name is also in reference to Madame C.J. Walker, a famous black entrepreneur, and inventor.
Another detail within this second scene is the fact that Mr. Lockhart is played by Michael J. Fox who is famous for his role as Marty McFly in the Back to The Future films, which happen to be about time-travel. Mr. Lockhart even says one of the famous quotes from the movies, “great Scott”. After watching the film this time, I looked at some videos about the film with the main cast and director. In one interview, when responding to a tweet, director Stefon Bristol mentioned that “his [Michael J. Fox] role would be very important to reflect teachers in the classroom to pay attention to black students who are brilliant because they’re often over missed in the classroom”
See You Yesterday also analyzes some moral and philosophical questions that come with the development of time travel. Mr. Lockhart states that “If time travel were possible, it would be the greatest ethical and philosophical conundrum of the modern age” (5:02), which the movie explores using the topics of race and police brutality. After her brother, Calvin is shot C.J. wants to go back in time to prevent it from happening, but initially, Sebastian is against it as it changes history and messes with time. Time travel raises questions such as, should people be allowed to change the past? If so, on what scale? How will those changes impact the present? Will we create a different timeline? And if so, won’t we just be stuck in the same unchanged timeline whilst the other splits off with the changed effects? Then was is the point of it all? And are somethings, unfortunate as the be, are just supposed to happen?
I also find it interesting how See You Yesterday handle the continuity of time travel which can easily get confusing and complicated, and there are different ways that different writers, and stories, handle time travel. When going back the first time C.J. and Sebastian acknowledge that they cannot be seen by their past self since that would mess up events, and the second time they jump back they are aware that they have to avoid two past versions of themselves. If they kept jumping back like that, the past versions of themself that they would have to avoid would constantly increase, but they solved that problem by (I assume through all the jargon used) splicing the timelines and jumps of their former selves, therefore undoing previous jumps.
However, as C.J. stated, “everything great has the ability to be good and bad” (28:10). In this case, the good of time travel comes in C.J. being able to save her brother in one loop, however the bad is also shown when it’s at the cost of Sebastian’s life. This leads to her making more jumps back to try and correct errors in her plan.
Some similarities that could be made between See You Yesterday and Victor LaValle’s Destroyer are the themes of race and police brutality as well as having a black female lead for both stories. The allusion that is being made to society is how black women fight for and alongside black men when there is racial injustice. Stefon Bristol also mentions this in the aforementioned interview, and how C.J. is a representation of that, and instead of it being through the lens of a mother, it’s through the lens of a teenage girl. Bristol also talks about black people uplifting and caring for each other when referencing a line in the movie, “I love you, black man… I love you, too, black woman” – (C.J. and Sebastian 39:09).
The ending of See You Yesterday was noticeably abrupt and seemingly felt like a cliffhanger. It was left open-ended as to what happened that time C.J. jumped back. My initial thought was that C.J. would continue to jump back in time, unfortunately, never able to save everyone, as there would always be one casualty. Or she would sacrifice herself to save everyone. The ending didn’t exactly give any closure, but in a way, I felt that that was the intention. How often in real life do the families of victims of police brutality get closure? In the interview with Bristol, he mentioned how he intentionally left it open-ended “to have the ending wrapped up in a bow like that [a happy ending where C.J. saves everyone] it would be an offensive oversimplification of why this movie was made, of a tragedy that’s still happening today, and I refuse a simplified ending. Explanation of the ending is basically I want you to do something about it, you pissed off that the movie ended that way, we pissed off that it still happens” (3:19).
See You Yesterday, directed by Stefon Bristol and produced by Spike Lee, was an interesting movie incorporating science-fiction time travel, and race and police brutality. It covered some important themes and topics facing society today. It was also interesting to see a science-fiction film take place in a personally familiar area of Flatbush and East Flatbush, Brooklyn.