Spike Lee produced Netflix film ‘See You Yesterday’ brings us the Black time travelers we need
Every time I read a headline about another unarmed Black person being shot, I wish that someone could go back and change the outcome.
by Andrew Keahey
What would you do if you could go back in time? If knowing what you know now, you had the power to change the outcome. To rewrite the story, and change it all. What would you do differently? You’d never have to worry about saying the wrong thing. You could play the lottery and win for a change. You would know the last time you were going to speak to someone, and you could actually say what you wanted to say before it was too late. Maybe it would never be too late at all. Maybe you would save a life.
Time travel is a trope in science fiction that’s been done to death. Understandable. We all wish we could change something that’s happened, or see what was going to happen next. Time travel stories tap into something that we all think about, because it’s often rooted in feelings of regret and the desire for knowledge, and who can’t relate to that? Whether it’s a contraption made of brass and various-sized cogs, a strangely conceived car from the 80’s with doors that open upwards, or a swirling, unstable portal, our imaginations have traveled from the beginning of time to the end of the universe with heroes that are smart, usually pretty quirky, and almost exclusively white.
The further back in time Black people go, the more dangerous the journey. We don’t get to be the the fun-loving, temporal tourists that white people get to be in these stories. We don’t get to throw our time travel helmets on and head back to see how cool the founding fathers were. We’d end up in chains or dead. Maybe both. Probably both.
Sure, we could go into the future, or the more recent past, but that’s rarely a concept that we’re included in. It just seems like the people that make the content don’t really feel like making the effort to include us, which would be hurtful if it wasn’t like everything else that we’ve have to fight our way into.
I watched NBC’s Timeless for about five episodes before I got weary of it. The Black time traveler is constantly being told to wait outside, being called “boy”, and generally having a terrible time as people shut him down for trying to help Black people in the past. Watching it was exhausting.
It doesn’t make much sense to me that there is such a lack of Black time travel stories in mainstream media, or that the genre is plagued by the unwritten, but nearly always followed rule that you can’t change anything. Every time I read a headline about another unarmed Black person being shot in the street, or dying in police custody, I wish that someone could go back and change the outcome. I want someone to tell them to leave the house a few minutes later than they originally planned, or to tell them to go to a different store to do their shopping, or to play on a different playground.
I wish I could prevent those cops from having bullets in their gun, or let the air out of their tires, or prevent them from becoming cops at all. I wish I could dissuade certain people from holding higher offices and enacting the deadly policies that continues to put our people into a system of legalized slavery. It’s a trope born for us to use and explore, and stories of Black time travel should break into the mainstream far more than they do.
The upcoming Spike Lee produced See You Yesterday is a Black time travel film premiering on Netflix in 2019 and is based on the short film of the same name by Stefon Bristol and Fredrica Bailey. The plot centers on two super genius teens from Brooklyn named CJ and Sebastian (Eden Duncan-Smith and Danté Crichlow) who use their combined scientific aptitude to create a time machine after CJ’s brother Calvin is unjustly killed by a police officer.
The award-winning short, which garnered numerous accolades was conceived by Bristol in 2014 after the murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police officers. As a filmmaker at NYU, he decided that he wanted to try to continue the conversation about anti-Black state violence through science fiction. The short film is brilliant, emotional, and currently available to stream on Max Go, the Cinemax online streaming platform, and it is absolutely worth your time.
I’ve written previously about how Black horror is used to make us feel cathartic as an oppressed people. It gives us the satisfaction of seeing our people win for a change, and science fiction can be used to do that too, and so much more. When you look at time travel, a lot of emphasis is placed on what you could have done differently, or what you can change, but what it also does is force us to look at our actions and choices in the now.
People will spout off for days about what they would do if they could just go back and kill Hitler, as if it would be easy. Plenty of those same people aren’t doing anything in the now to combat white supremacy, or doing what they can to better their communities. When we look at the past, it’s often, less of a look backward and more of a look inward. We are currently making choices we will eventually want to go back and change, and we should thoroughly examine those choices.
Twenty years from now, someone might ask you what you did to help. What you did to enact change or to make things better. You’ll think about it, and you’ll think about all those missed opportunities you should have taken, and you might tell the truth, or you might lie, but inside, you’ll always wish you’d done a little bit more.
You probably won’t be able to jump in a portal or a magical car, or put on a backpack and zap yourself into the past. With See You Yesterday, and the rush of Black time travel stories that will hopefully follow it into the mainstream, it will certainly be something nice to fantasize about.
Andrew Keahey is a horror enthusiast and writer currently based in Austin, Texas. He’s been watching horror movies since he was far too young, and primarily writes essays, short fiction, and poetry.