The genre offers a creative opportunity to tell Black stories, using fantasy and adventure to bring awareness to real-world injustice.
What would I do if I were able to time travel? And what unforeseen consequences might occur by whatever I did? I couldn’t stop reflecting on these questions after watching See You Yesterday, the debut feature film by budding filmmaker Stefon Bristol, produced by legendary filmmaker Spike Lee. In the film, protagonist Claudette “CJ” Walker—a nod to Madam C.J. Walker, known for developing and marketing a line of cosmetics and hair care products for Black women—and her best friend Sebastian, two STEM genii, attempt to perfect their time machine so that they can go back in time to save CJ’s older brother Calvin, who’s killed by a police officer.
I was left with the unsettling thought that, as a Black woman, my name or the name of a loved one could be the next hashtag trending after an unfortunate encounter with a police officer, and my or their untimely death could be the impetus for nationwide protests. I further considered what I would do if I could go back in time and change the circumstances that caused their death.
Bristol says that as he and co-writer Fredrica Bailey worked on the script, he asked himself, “If I was a brilliant young person who lost a loved one, what would I do?”
See You Yesterday, now on Netflix, is an answer to that question, and two young people’s journey in navigating their community—the good, the bad and the perplexing. How much control do we really have over our own destiny?
In separate conversations with the filmmakers, we talked about the themes of power and control, their process of developing the film, and what they hope it does for conversations about police brutality.
The following interview was edited for clarity and length.
Deonna Anderson: See You Yesterday was originally a short film. What made you all decide to do a feature length?
Fredrica Bailey: After the short, [which] did pretty well and went to some festivals, Stefon and I were talking. I was like, “I don’t know, Stefon. Have we said everything that we need to say?” We thought about it and realized that there’s so much more that we weren’t able to fit into that 15-minute short.
I think we knew the core was still going to be about them trying to save Calvin. But we realized that this is an opportunity to delve into their homelife, for you to see them as the smart kids going to this elite STEM school and for us to kind of show more of their community, and more of the things that they’re passionate about and into.
Photo from Netflix
With the feature, it was really fun to be able to go into that and see that they’ve invented other things. How they service their community with their talents and gifts. And also to really build out [the] relationship between CJ and Sebastian, but also CJ and Calvin, and to bring her mom into it, and just to kind of really explore the neighborhood and the community of Flatbush, and just breathe a different kind of life into it and show these things that you don’t normally see on screen.
Anderson: There are two sci-fi greats in the film. Octavia Butler’s Kindred, being read by Michael J. Fox—Back to the Future’s Marty McFly—who makes a cameo as CJ and Sebastian’s teacher. I’m guessing you were a fan of sci-fi before creating See You Yesterday. What was your first experience with the genre?
“Sci-fi was always a good way to have an adventure and go to other worldly places and be other worldly things, [while] still commenting on our current world and society.”
Stefon Bristol: My first experience with sci-fi was Jurassic Park, [as] a kid. I wasn’t interested in dinosaurs, I was interested in seeing dinosaurs eat people. [Laughter] And I got what I wanted. It was great.
[But] there was a line [in it about] trying to contain these animals and trying to play God, but life always finds a way. That stuck out to me, because there’s also a thinking game going on with this movie.
I picked that up with other movies, like Back to the Future, Run Lola Run, Static Shock, [and] Meteor Man. There’s always some kind of underlying message, so it doesn’t have to be just pure entertainment. That meant a lot to me.
And Octavia Butler. When I was in the earlier stages of writing [See You Yesterday], a good friend of mine passed along that book, and said “You need to take a look at this and see how [she uses] time travel.” I was like, “Hell, yeah.” And I read it. And I’m like, “Yo, this is some legit stuff. This is some really good writing.” It [affirmed that] I can do whatever the hell I want to do, and be unapologetic—unapologetically Black.
Fredrica Bailey: My first interaction was probably through film. It may have been the Back to the Future movies, back in the day [with] my dad [who suggested watching them together]. Films are sort of our thing, our bonding thing.
And then, I slowly kind of got into Star Wars and all of that stuff. But I think [Back to the Future] may have been the first exposure, the first glimpse into that time travel, space odyssey-type world and field.
Anderson: Why do you think sci-fi is a good genre to tell Black stories?
Bailey: Sci-fi was always a good way to have an adventure and go to other worldly places and be other worldly things, [while] still commenting on our current world and society, and making a statement about what's going on in real life. You’re able to do that by giving some people a little bit of escapism and entertainment at the same time.
Photo from Netflix
For telling Black stories, that’s a great combo. It’s a great way to say, we can take you to different places and give you an adventure. But we’re also going to talk about what’s going on here at home, and the things that are important to the Black community, in our community, and talk about ideas, or different paths we can take to try and bring awareness and possibly solutions to these type of issues.
I’m a very genre writer. I love sci-fi, fantasy, action-adventure, which is why I think pairing with Stefon was just so natural. Hopefully, we can come up with some new ideas and get some new things going in that area.
Anderson: Something that struck me as a Black person watching the film is that one day, you can be in your living room watching a protest against police brutality, and the next day, you can be a victim of it. Why do you think it’s important to keep police brutality in the forefront of people's minds? And what do you hope See You Yesterday adds to or changes about the way people are talking about police brutality?
Bristol: I just needed the conversation to continue to happen so people can figure out a way to fix this shit, to be honest with you. Notice how when someone [is] a victim of police brutality, the media, specifically, once they find a blemish in that victim’s character, they make it seem like whatever that blemish is, that they deserved to be shot [or] killed.
For example, [Botham Jean] who got killed in his own apartment when a police officer entered the wrong apartment. The media picks that up and supposedly, he was smoking weed. Oh, so because he smokes weed, he deserved to get shot in his own apartment by a police officer that shouldn’t have even been there in the first place? Because Mike Brown robbed a bodega a couple of days ago, is the reason why he deserved to be gunned down in the middle of the street?
“We really wanted to have people reflect. And I think that's what's happening.”
I purposely made sure that these characters [in See You Yesterday] didn’t have any blemishes. They weren’t involved in any robberies, didn't have any crimes. I wanted the audience to love these characters so much that when the inevitable happens, you hope for them that they win.
Bailey: I think it’s important because sometimes I feel like as a society, we just have a tendency to, for whatever reason, only focus on one issue at a time. So while some of these other very important issues [have] come up, I feel like police brutality has faded into the background.
Part of what Stefon and I wanted to do was to make sure that we bring this back into the [foreground] and remind people that this is still the issue, this hasn’t gone away, it’s still happening to Black and Brown people every day.
Anderson: One of the messages I received from the film is that we don’t always have control over what happens in our lives. Is that a key takeaway you wanted viewers to have?
Bristol: It could be that. I just know whatever happened in the past is a product of who you are right now. If you’re successful, what ever happened yesterday, whatever happened the day before that, and years before that helps you become a better person. It helps you become who you are now, and I just feel like venturing into the past, it’s not a good idea.
Photo from Netflix
Bailey: That is definitely a conversation or thought that I want people to consider, the thought of destiny, of control. CJ is a character who wants to exhibit control. I think we all do. Life can be the highest of highs, but also the lowest of lows and everything in between. And there’s a sense of security and safety when you feel like you're in some type of control. But the reality is that in many things, we’re just not. [That message] often comes up with anything time travel-related, who is in control and who does control their destiny. And can you that change? Can it be altered?
Anderson: Is there anything we didn’t talk about related to the film that you want people to know?
Bailey: People feel a certain way about the ending. But that’s the ending that Stefon and I both really love. My family members have been calling me, like “You better be writing a part two,” or “You better tell me what happens at the end.” And I’m just like, “Well, what do you think happens at the end?’ I think the point is to have people sit back and think.
With the ending as it is, you sit there for a minute and think about it, and you talk about it. You may write something on social media about it. But it makes you feel a type of way in which you’re not able to just put it to the side and say, “OK, that’s finished,” and go on about your day.
It was to bring about some thought about this issue [of police brutality], and to have people kind of sit there afterwards and say, “Isn’t it terrible that she even has to do this? That she even is trying to solve a problem, such as this, you know? Isn’t it terrible that she can’t just be a kid? That they can’t be kids?”
We really wanted to have people reflect. And I think that’s what’s happening.