Movie Review: ‘SEE YOU YESTERDAY’ a timely Netflix original about time travel, Black Lives Matter
Travis Leamons // Film Critic
Picture a scenario where you have this script only to have every film studio reject it. Then you have a box office hit and approach Steven Spielberg to produce your screenplay with Amblin Entertainment. That was Robert Zemeckis. That was BACK TO THE FUTURE.
Stefon Bristol loves that movie (PART II, especially), and JURASSIC PARK, and DO THE RIGHT THING. Growing up in Brooklyn and attending Morehouse College, like Spike Lee, Bristol had aspirations to make films and work on one of the director’s “joints” (what Lee calls his productions). Bristol went to three Q&A sessions trying to convince the filmmaker to give him a chance. No such luck. Rebuffed, he next entered the graduate film program at NYU. Spike Lee became his professor. This fortune became a trying experience for Bristol. “Trash,” “unoriginal,” a “hood film,” three things Lee called Bristol’s short, THE BODEGA, which revolved around two friends, one convincing the other to help him rob a store to help get his father out of debt. Of the three things, it was Lee calling Bristol’s short unoriginal that affected him the most.
Making something unique in an industry where originality is a tough sell is hard. Bristol had to unpack his upbringing and tell something different. Don’t write stories about pimps, prostitutes, or turning to a life of crime. Those perpetuate stereotypes about black people. Tell the stories where the interests lie in subjects we rarely see with persons of color. And that’s what Bristol has done with SEE YOU YESTERDAY. With BACK TO THE FUTURE on the brain and the boiled-over tensions of DO THE RIGHT THING festering with the deaths of Michael Brown and others, Stefon Bristol takes a timely subject (police brutality) and makes it an integral part of a story about best friends trying to fix a miscarriage of an all-to-real reality.
Eden Duncan-Smith is C.J., a brilliant science nerd living in the Brooklyn borough of Flatbush. While other kids are reading comics, she’s reading Stephen Hawking’s A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME. She is fascinated with the idea of time travel, though her teacher (who knows a thing or two about time-traveling) tries to keep her perspectives in check. Working with best friend Sebastian (Dante Crichlow) the two create a device that’ll allow them to slide back for a single day, stay for 10 minutes, and jump back. It subscribes to the rules that movie time travel has shown. The smallest change can cause a ripple and disrupt the future.
C.J.’s world crashes without warning when her older brother Calvin (Astro) is murdered by police, who mistake his phone for a weapon. Knowingly capable of going back in time and saving her brother’s life, C.J. complicates the past each time she and Sebastian put on their time-travel backpacks. Playing with time creates new problems; intended results have fatal consequences.
What isn’t a problem is Bristol’s slim running time. Less than 80 minutes in length, he keeps the story concise until it becomes cluttered with time loops in the last act. Still, Bristol’s direction and Felipe Vara de Rey’s photography bring the bright colors of Flatbush to life, its Jamaican culture a constant influence. Clearly inspired by what Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson accomplished with DO THE RIGHT THING. Duncan-Smith is a young actress to have on your radar. Very reminiscent of Tessa Thompson in DEAR WHITE PEOPLE and Kiersey Clemons in DOPE. And any time you can have Jordan Peele’s composer, Michael Abels, score your project, well that’s just sprinkles on top.
SEE YOU YESTERDAY is a promising debut that would have likely been rejected by every major studio in Hollywood. Had it not been for Spike Lee’s guidance (first criticizing Bristol’s work, then giving him notes on how to make his feature film more complete) and his relationship (with Netflix with his series SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT), YESTERDAY may not have ever been accomplished.
Funny that it took a box office hit for Robert Zemeckis to go BACK TO THE FUTURE with Steven Spielberg. Bristol didn’t need theatrical exhibition to make his future a reality.
SEE YOU YESTERDAY is now available to stream on Netflix.