Review: Netflix's 'See You Yesterday' Brings Black Girl Magic To Time Travel
Back To The Future meets The Hate U Give in the woke sci-fi adventure See You Yesterday. But forget Doc Brown. The fly teens at the center of this Brooklyn-set time-travel tale don’t need a wacky old man to build them a time machine. They made their own. And rather than mother-flirting shenanigans, they’ll use this scientific breakthrough to try to save a life lost to police brutality. The result is a film that’s pulse-pounding, heartwarming, fresh and fearless.
The feature directorial debut of Stefon Bristol, See You Yesterday centers on CJ Walker (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Bash Thomas (Dante Crichlow), two Black science prodigies who are working on building backpack-nested time machines. Initially, their goal is to win scholarships to colleges that’ll give them a path out of the hood. But when CJ’s brother is gunned down by an officer in an instance the news calls “overzealous policing and mistaken identity,” her thoughts of the future turn to rewriting the past. While these brilliant teens can work out time travel, can they work out a plan to save Calvin?
The task seems simple. But the teens’ machine only offers a ten-minute window into each trip to the past. Things get complicated when they have to avoid their past selves, dodge a drama-making trifler and armed bodega robbers, then find CJ’s brother before the clock runs out. The script by Bristol and Fredrica Bailey offers new challenges with each trip, which keeps things unpredictable and exciting. The tension is notched up with each failure, as CJ’s options are narrowed and she realizes she has some hard choices to make.
When your teen time-travel movie is dealing with Black Lives Matter, it won’t be as zany and outright fun as Back To The Future, but Bristol works in the influence of the Robert Zemeckis classic in ways subtle and stark. A photograph flickers when the future is uncertain. The teens wear lab coats in their first test run, a nod to Doc Brown’s signature style (though theirs are stylish dark denim!). And at the top of the film, See You Yesterday gets Michael J. Fox’s blessing, with a short but satisfying cameo in which he gamely exclaims, “Great Scott!” Outside of allusion, Bristol establishes the joy that CJ and Bash share in their STEM passion. The two make a perfect team, rapidly spouting movie-science lingo back and forth and jumping in childish glee once their backpacks work. Where this film is at its best is when Bristol and his cast delve into the too-real drama of its premise.
There are small moments, like when Calvin (The X Factor’s Astro) gently but firmly warns his little sister about how her impulsivity and hot-temper could derail her big dreams. There’s the detail of a Black teen swiftly pulling out his camera phone to record an interaction with an aggressive cop. Then there’s Calvin’s shooting. While this event will happen over and over, Bristol spares his audience having to witness it more than once. He instead cuts to black or relies on the sound of a gunshot, crisp and clear suggestions that don’t make a ghoulish spectacle out of a tragedy that is all too common in modern America. But the lives of these urban teens are not purely defined by violence and police threat. Bristol creates balance by celebrating the Black culture of Brooklyn.
Here is where you can most feel the influence of executive producer Spike Lee, who shepherded this adaptation of Bristol’s NYU short thesis film. The Afro-Latino culture of Flatbush shines in flags, accents, and the reggae music that rolls over the teens as they toil away in Bash’s grandparents’ garage. When racing through a park, CJ and Bash trip through double-dutch jumpers. Before taking his fateful walk, Calvin plays dominoes with neighbors at a barbecue. At his funeral, a preacher calls out for justice in a voice that quavers in between rebuke and song. And in a nod to Black history, See You Yesterday’s heroine is named after Madam C. J. Walker, a groundbreaking entrepreneur and philanthropist who is credited as the first female self-made millionaire in the United States. If I could pick all this out in one viewing, you can bet there’s more in store.
In his first feature effort, Bristol has made an exhilarating, poignant, and original time-travel adventure that nods to its history while charting a bold new course. I absolutely can’t wait to watch See You Yesterday again and to see what he does next. However, the very best bit of spectacular sci-fi is Eden Duncan-Smith. She is a revelation. She can sling science dialogue at a stunning speed. She can shoot a no-nonsense stare that stops the foolish cold. She can charm with her confident grin, make us cackle with the fling of a slushie, and break hearts with a sob. Best of all, she crafted a complicated and vibrant Angry Girl.
CJ is angry. And she has plenty of reason to be; the film doesn’t deny her that. In key moments, Duncan-Smith radiates with this anger, an emotion too often denied girls and thereby made more dangerous to their mental well-being. In this coming-of-age sci-fi quest, CJ not only conquers time travel but also the anger that threatens to derail her. Through this, she becomes a role model on another level. Smart, passionate, and brave, CJ Walker is a heroine for the nerdy, the young Black and gifted, and the rightfully angry. Her story is suitably electric with rage, joy, wit, and geekgasms. In short, See You Yesterday is an instant sci-fi classic that’s as timely as it is terrific.
See You Yesterday made its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on May 3. It hits Netflix on May 17.
Header Image Source: Netflix