I used to say that if Back to the Future starred a black man, it would have been a horror movie. See You Yesterday isn’t the first black time travel story, but the way it addresses growing up black in an urban neighborhood, the horrors of police brutality, and how difficult it can be to create a happy ending represent an important step in Afrofuturist filmmaking.
Scientific prodigy C. J. (Eden Duncan-Smith) and her best friend Sebastian (Danté Crichlow) have developed a means of limited time travel. Using cobbled-together equipment and AR schematics, they have created a sort of proton pack that will allow them to travel one day back in time. At first, C. J.’s motivation is impersonal, and she ignores the ethical questions raised by her high school science teacher, Mr. Lockhart (a welcome cameo by Back to the Future’s Michael J. Fox.) When C .J.’s brother Calvin (Brian “Stro” Bradley) is murdered by police, C. J. is driven to improve her invention and travel back several days on a quest to save him.
I grew up on time travel stories like Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” and The Final Countdown, and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Most time-traveling protagonists were driven to right wrongs created by their own mistakes. In See You Yesterday, the protagonist wants to reverse an incident that genuinely never should have happened. Using such a deeply emotional foundation and infusing what is basically a children’s film with such a powerful sense of terror and regret fuses it into more than the sum of its parts.
Shot entirely in Queens and Brooklyn, See You Yesterday goes out of its way to portray its New York City neighborhoods and their populations accurately. Full of West Indian and Caribbean families, patois, and cook-outs, the film never tries to pretend that there is only one kind of blackness. Even Calvin Walker, who meets a tragic end, is portrayed as more than a martyr. He is neither entirely perfect nor some thug who had it coming. With relatively little screen-time, Calvin is portrayed with depth, nuance, and genuine affection. When he is absent from the movie, the loss is keenly felt.
Another element that sets See You Yesterday apart from its peers is its ending. Without going into specifics, I’ll say that the ending takes a real risk for this kind of story, refusing to offer easy answers or lapse into platitudes. Over the last few years, as we’ve seen an explosion of Afrofuturist stories and themes across various media—from Black Panther to the comic-book adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred, to the novels of N. K. Jemisin and Nisi Shawl—we’ve seen a refinement of characterization, themes, and storytelling techniques. As Afrofuturism as a concept comes into its own, See You Yesterday makes a worthy entry in the canon.