Inventing the inventive "See You Yesterday" kids: "I wanted to show a different side of the 'hood"

Salon talks to Stefon Bristol about his Netflix film about two gifted teens on an urgent time-traveling mission

Published May 17, 2019 5:00PM (EDT)

Eden Duncan-Smith and Danté Crichlow in "See You Yesterday" (Linda Kallerüs)
Eden Duncan-Smith and Danté Crichlow in "See You Yesterday" (Linda Kallerüs)

In “See You Yesterday,” director and co-writer Stefon Bristol’s canny feature debut, “Back to the Future” cross-pollinates with Black Lives Matter. The film’s two teenage protagonists, CJ (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian (Dante Crichlow), use time travel to stop police violence against an unarmed black youth. The film, which is based on Bristol’s short of the same name and executive produced by Spike Lee, had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this month before its May 17 debut on Netflix.

The film opens on the last day of high school, where junior CJ is reading Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” and her science teacher (a great cameo, not to be spoiled) is reading Octavia Butler’s “Kindred.” When best friends CJ and Sebastian get back to his grandparents’ garage, they work on their makeshift time machines.

“See You Yesterday” soon presents two episodes that form the crux of the film—encounters that will be repeated in slightly different forms once the teenage characters learn how to “jump back” after inventing temporal relocation.

It is best for viewers to discover the nature of what transpires and what needs to be “undone” as things get complicated. What can be revealed is that that film shrewdly blends comedy and social drama in equal measures, while also featuring some cool (if low-budget) special effects.

Salon talked with Bristol his film during the Tribeca Film Festival.

Were you a science nerd/geek when you were a teenager? I ask because your main characters invent temporal relocation, and I was curious if your film is based on real life?

No. I wasn’t interested in science when I was a kid. I had the kids be scientists for the audience to connect with the characters. Black and brown characters are often drug dealers, rappers, athletes, or musicians. I wanted to show a different side of the ‘hood. I’m from the ‘hood and Coney Island, and I grew up with kids into technology, anime, comic books etc. They were not ball players or musicians. There are other ways to fulfill your life. I wanted something different, so, I had kids into science.

I am pleased your protagonist is a female teenage African American interested in pursuing STEM studies/career. CJ’s character is a strong, determined teenager. Arguably too tough, as some characters in the film suggest. Can you talk about creating her character?

There’s this notion that when a black woman gets upset or is determined, she’s an “angry black woman.” If it was a white male who gets angry, they say “He has talent or vision.” I wanted to show that whatever you want to do, you have to be unapologetic, and I wanted CJ to reflect that for other Black women and men — that whatever your skin color you have, you have to be unapologetic and work your ass off to get what you want.

You turned your short into a feature, which is often done but this is one of the few examples that improves on the original (which I saw at the Black Star Film Festival). Can you talk about making the short, which was your NYU thesis film, and turning it into a feature?

You’ve asked me to give you five years of experience in one question! It was always the plan to do the feature, but the short was my master’s thesis. I was trying to graduate with a feature, because there were no shorts I was proud of. I was encouraged by Spike Lee to do the short first. We [Fredrica Bailey and I] wrote the feature first, but then we did the short and it became successful. We got the HBO Short Film Award from the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film fest and other prizes. We got a Special Mention from the Black Star Film Festival. With that success, Spike came to me and asked me to do the feature. It took a while, but it’s always been intentional. Me and Fredrica threw away the original script and restarted from scratch.

How did you develop the nifty special effects and the film’s visual style? There is some terrific imagery and camerawork, particularly a 360-degree pan during a key dramatic moment.

I was not expecting Netflix to come in, so I expected to raise the money myself and make a rinky-dinky film and move on the next project. I got more budget than I was hoping for. I worked with the best cinematographer, Felipe Vara de Rey, production designer, Jimena Azula, costume designer, Charlese Antoinette Jones, and editor, Jennifer Lee. Jennifer saved my ass a lot through the movie. She did “Skeleton Twins,” and was at Marvel. Her storytelling was impeccable, and she challenged me a lot.

I knew I wanted to focus on family, not special effects. Most of the time it’s two people talking in the room and I wanted that dynamic. With Netflix’s help and the amazing team at Hey Beautiful Jerk [an effects company], we came in with a 60-shot allotment and it ended up being more than 125. Once you’re in editing, you need more shots and stock footage. My executive producers were there at every step to nurture me to make sure the film got what it needs. We were very creative. People cared a lot and we figured it out.

It was also practice. In film school, I figured out my limitations to make things feel real — how to hide or fake something and make it look real. You can practice low end. You cannot cheat things like guns or pyrotechnics or stunt work. You have to hire stunt people. You have to raise the capital and get your permits and hire real people who know how to deal with it. If you don’t have the resources, don’t do it. There’s no shame in the game. And I’m not just talking money, but support, too.

The film has a strong sense of community in the world it presents. You have African American, Caribbean, and Puerto Rican and Latino characters interacting. You present families, church, and a neighborhood. Can you talk about that representation?

All the nuances the Caribbean culture, the Brooklyn culture — is just me. I know it like the back of my hand. My family is from Guyana. I just know it well, both now and when I wrote it. I did research, walking through neighborhood stores, and listening on the subway. I never saw that on screen before. We don’t know about the black immigrant experience. I never saw how kids grew up in Brooklyn from a Haitian or Guyanese family. My whole family was at the premiere, and they hooted and hollered when the saw the Guyanese flag hanging over the garage.

I really want to show this film to my nieces and nephews, but the language in it is a bit strong. Did you deliberately make a film about teens that younger viewers need to see with their parents so they can initiate a discussion of the larger themes?

For me, when you make a move about police brutality, you can’t shy away from language. There’s no way around it. It’s Brooklyn. There, kids talk like that every day. It’s about a real situation and how kids talking like this are not dangerous kids. We have a particular, expressive culture, and we’re seen as a threat communicating with others this way. We’re like this! If people aren’t comfortable with it, that’s too bad. I’m unapologetically Black. If anyone has a problem with it, f**k ‘em! You’d be amazed what kids are exposed to. Parents can start a conversation with it. It’s an R- rated movie for kids.

The film emphasizes the Black Lives Matter movement as the main plot has CJ and Sebastian going back in time to stop an innocent, unarmed youth from being shot by the police. I don’t want to give too much away, but can you discuss how this incident allowed you to comment on the movement?

I did a lot of research on that moment and I wanted to show that cops who have murdered young black people are trigger happy and not trained properly. Often, they view young black people as a threat, and that’s not the case. I’ve experienced polite and professional cops, but when we [minorities] are approached, we are triggered and very afraid. That fear is innate. Cops have to figure out how to keep that calmed down.

“See You Yesterday” suggests that by going back in time, the characters have the power to make a change. This prompts the obvious question: If you could go back in time, what is the one thing you would want to change? And let’s add the degree of difficulty and restrict this question to something relating to your film, to avoid you making a dent in the space-time continuum.

Nothing. I’m ready to move on to the next film. Five years I spent on this. I’m tired. I made mistakes, and I learned from them. I don’t want to change anything.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

MORE FROM Gary M. Kramer

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