Producer Spike Lee’s newest offering is an urban teen slice of science fiction, and before you ridicule my use of “urban” consider it’s set among the bodegas and back alleys of Brooklyn and surrounding boroughs. Young geniuses C.J. and Sebastian are among the best and brightest at Bronx High School of Science. Even their teacher (a stupendous cameo) says so, and their parents have high hopes for their future. They all don’t know the half of it. The pair of them have concocted a makeshift time machine that allows them to jump backwards a day or week depending on equipment. See You Yesterday is a rare media sight of black teenagers using science to try to better their surroundings, and has woven together nimble scifi and real-world strife in a way that feels wholly original and often fun.
Watching C.J. and Sebastian navigate the perils of time travel can be exhilarating and, eventually, quite bleak. They learn harsh lessons when going back and attempting to prevent her brother Calvin’s death at the hands of overzealous cops, providing opportunity for both ample suspense as well as artificial conflict. There’s something contrived about the manner in which things go awry on their second and third jumps, and C.J.’s sullen temper doesn’t help matters. Her character suffers from unmotivated flaws, defects acknowledged but never folded within as an arc to follow or some obstacle to overcome. Actress Eden Duncan-Smith elicits plenty of empathy anyway, her eyes doing most of the work. Ditto Parish Bradley as Calvin, a young man working fast food and trying his damnedest to protect little sis’ from neighborhood bullies and “hood rats.” He could have a bright future if he only believed in himself or could step away from a life of staring down cops and other douchebags. When the inevitable arrives, C.J. has the perfect life hack in her back pocket to save Calvin and for once bring justice to our batshit-crazy universe.
By the end, it’s clear that Spike and director Stefon Bristol’s little film is a metaphor for the struggle of black men and women in America. It’s the never-ending story of the unarmed gunned down in cold blood, and our seemingly futile attempts to right the wrongs of the past. See You Yesterday ends quite abruptly, and my initial reaction was that Bristol had written a slow-moving picture that was simultaneously too short. But Yesterday is timely and by turns hopeful and hopeless, both a snazzy fantasy and a grounded portrait of young African-American life, their neighborhood beset by protest and police brutality. In hindsight, the ending is quite moving as a means of highlighting the struggle, because there is no finality to the fight for justice or equality.