Possible Spoilers ‘See You Yesterday‘
When See You Yesterday popped up in my Netflix suggestions I had two thoughts. My first was that Netflix is pouncing on the afrofuturist aesthetic that’s catching ears, eyes, and box office dollars at the moment, and the second was, “Spike Lee’s producing young adult fiction now; let me take a look.” Only, I didn’t take a look. I put a pin in it and finished binge watching my other favorite POC, female-led shows: Killing Eve starring Sandra Oh, and Chambers, a series that finally puts an indigenous breakout star front and center of a creepy, warped thriller. Then, after friends started complaining about the ending of See You Yesterday, I circled back to the film to watch it in its entirety so that I could be ready to defend or mince the storyline after dissecting it for myself.
I’m a longtime fan of Lee, and was drawn to the movie because of his association with it, but the cinematic short is actually the brainchild of Netflix newcomers, co-writer Frederica Bailey, and director/ co-writer Stefon Bristol. So, I settled in front of my laptop with the full expectation of experiencing what I always feel as the opening credits roll on a series or movie with a lot of fanfare around it-a general uncertainty and excitement at the prospect of where the tale would take me, intellectually and emotionally. Luckily for me, Bailey and Bristol didn’t disappoint in the least. See You Yesterday splices a dash of black and brown youth in pursuit of STEM greatness with a strong female lead, and the fast-paced story is set amidst the raw, raucous beauty of Brooklyn. It’s also rife with tension and brimming with poignant questions from start to finish, and while I get while the ending wasn’t necessarily a crowd pleaser, it is instead a galvanizing reminder from Bristol and Bailey that there is still an urgent need to dismantle the same villain from Lee’s previous and arguably best film, Do the Right Thing.
“I don’t like the ending!”
“How could he end it like that? Psshh…whack asf.”
I’m confused as to what ending we should’ve expected.
I see why Lee wanted to work on this project as a producer. He probably sees that Bristol and Bailey understand the same things about American moviegoers that he does; we are erroneously pre-conditioned to expect positive outcomes that wrap up neatly almost every time. Perhaps that’s why the scenes that make See You Yesterday so powerful are reminiscent of the unsettling scene in which Radio Raheem (Do the Right Thing) succumbs to a chokehold of a white cop who ignored his pleas for his life. I shifted in my seat as the life drained from the martyred character, masterfully played by Bill Nunn. Similarly, Bristol was able to extract the same level of anxiety from me as I watched the young, temperamental heroine in See You Yesterday, CJ Walker (Eden Duncan-Smith), witness the death of her older brother and detrimentally fearless protector Calvin (Brian Vaughn Bradley, Jr.). As she lays face down on the pavement at the behest of hot-head cops, it’s impossible to ignore the parallels between the tragic deaths in both films.
Before you assume that I’m praising Bristol, Bailey, and Lee for bringing gloom and doom for mere audience shock value, it’s important to highlight the other, inarguably wonderful aspects of black, brown, and Caribbean culture in this film.
Like, Sebastian’s granny doesn’t care if he’s building a time machine or a spaceship in the garage, but she warns him that it damn well better be clean before his grandfather returns and finds it in shambles. But, juxtaposed against her feisty tongue are her warm actions, as she brings the budding quantum theorists snacks as they labor on their ‘temporal relocation’ machine.
Brisol breathes fresh air into Lee’s birthplace in this film, too. Brooklyn shines in scenes with barbecues, black churches, and colorful, curbside entrepreneurs–despite those things being the backdrop to a horrendous chain of events that eventually snowball beyond CJ’s control.
Another great aspect of the story is that the screenwriters avoids the easy scapegoat of hyperbolic villains; the cops don’t exist as a monolith in her story. We’re able to see the look of shock and horror on one officer’s face as he watches his partner fire the shot that fatally wounds Calvin. Ultimately, I’d argue that Bailey and Bristol gives us the quintessential byronic heroine in CJ because most of the tension in the film is brought about by the missteps she makes due to her haste and stubbornness throughout the story.
Bailey and Bristol also gives us the ending that the film needed, and they let the chain of events build perfectly toward that end. She, Bristol, and Lee even go as far as to do the humane thing–they spare us from a final scene in which young CJ inevitably dies.
“Whaaat? That’s crazy. She clearly isn’t going to die. The ending is about how she’s going to keep trying until she fixes everything. Gtfo with that.”
That line of thinking, however optimistic, is flawed.
Watch it again.
We know that she’ll (likely) die next attempting the feat because Bailey and Bristol pointedly establishes a pattern of events that suggests just that when we witness the violent death of her science partner and best friend, Sebastian Thomas (Dante Crichlow). Based on CJ’s trajectory throughout the film, the fact that there’s not much arc to her character, and considering that each time she goes back she’s ultimately met with death, it’s painfully apparent that her accidentally getting herself killed is a mere dice roll.
Again; this is why the ending is perfect as is. We fade to black with a positive visualization of our central character’s passion and determination to change things for herself. What’s even better than that is, Bailey and Bristol leave viewers to reflect on the lesson CJ may die before learning: she’ll never be able to change singular outcomes by continuously returning to an environment that is statically unjust and imbalanced; no one can. Even with all the steampunk glasses and temporal relocators they could muster.
The film leaves us in the same way it began, with a demonstration of the Sisyphean nature of trying to adjust one cog in a machine that’s capable of running efficiently no matter what. That machine, unfortunately, is the heartbreaking subjugation of black and brown people at the hands of a racist, authoritative system that denies people of color equal protection under the law and sometimes, withholds justice from us altogether. If Bristol, Bailey, and Lee are holding up a mirror to the injustices we face at the hands of that system—and sometimes at our own—then them allowing us to see her save anyone without consequence would be a grossly inaccurate depiction.
The popular formula for mainstream films is that we leave our theaters or couches with more hope than when we entered. Perhaps the hope behind this film is that we are again reminded that the success we seek within this broken system should never be solely for the benefit of ourselves. CJ is a young woman with a young woman’s short-sighted ambition. She states that repeatedly, through her actions and words, throughout the film. But, if you’re still salty and want to imagine an alternate ending for her, here’s one for you.
Imagine one in which, after failing to fix her life several times, CJ begins to dream even bigger. She looks beyond her own advancement and travels back to a point when the Sebastians and Calvins of the world were kings, or at least thriving and free from colonial rule. While there, she manages to disrupt the proponents of a system they don’t know is forming against them–one that would see them imprisoned, enslaved, or dead. Then, she dismantles its pieces before it’s even built.
M’Shai S Dash is a freelance writer and blogger from Washington D.C. She’s a pop-culture connoisseur and Legend of Zelda fanatic who writes about blerd culture, social justice issues, and Afrofuturism. Dash is currently a staff writer for Blacksci-Fi.com.