See You Yesterday and Back to the Future: The Racialization of Time Travel

Since Langston Hughes The Ways of White Folks, Black writers have intersected literature and film with issues surrounding race for several decades. Who can forget Octavia Butler’s classic saga The Parable Series where she uses apocalyptic imagery to tell a tale of economic exploitation and political collapse in dystopian California. More recently, Jordan Peele has revived the subgenre of horror noir in his box office hits Get Out and US, where horror and race collide to deliver two films that are both suspenseful and conscious. For Black authors and filmmakers fiction is never just fiction because many Black creators feel the burden to prioritize the social ills that effect the Black community or celebrate our Blackness through their preferred artistic discipline.

Enter Spike Lee’s and Stephon Bristol’s See You Yesterday, a sci-fi film that embodies the creative direction of Back to the Future and the 2018 film The Hate You Give (or insert your favorite film that deals with police brutality). In the Netflix produced film, C.J. and Sebastian play two teenage science prodigies who are tinkering with a backpack that enables them to travel back in time, and after several failed attempts their persistency pays off and their invention enables them to time travel to the previous day. Things begin to go south when CJ’s brother Calvin is gunned down by the police after being mistaken for robbing the local bodega and reaching for his phone while being detained by the police (have we not heard this story before?). CJ’s invention only allows her to go back so far within a 24 hour period, but far enough to intervene to prevent her brother’s homicide. After one failed attempt to prevent her brother’s killing, she decides to prevent the robbery that occurred which was the indirect cause of her brother’s death. Although this time she’s successful in preventing her brother’s death, she ends up loosing her best friend Sebastian when Sebastian’s past-self is gunned down in the robbery with Sebastian’s future-self witnessing his own demise. Without giving away the ending (We don’t do that here at Black with No Chaser), what See You Yesterday tells is a tale of the pervasiveness of White supremacy and the inescapability of Black trauma. For every unfortunate circumstance reversed another traumatic event is precipitated from the initial tragedy. Its like racialized causation; for every unfortunate cause there is an equal tragic effect.

The movie also illustrates how time travel can never be racially neutral. Either by the producers’ artistic prerogative to take on the burden of telling our story through science fiction or by the storyline itself that says time itself is racialized. If Back to the Future is this films cinematic progenitor, both films stand in stark contrast of one another. If “Marty” (played by Michael J. Fox) can travel back to 1955 to tinker with his parents’ high school romance, CJ and Sebastian don’t have the luxury to travel back in time without colliding with intra-racial conflict and police brutality, simply put, even our time travel can’t escape our communal crisis. The creative process reveals that neither Spike Lee nor Stephon Bristol can create a film without time travel and not pierce our imaginations to think about using time travel to reverse some events caused by White supremacy. CJ and Sebastian reveal another stark contrast between Marty and Doc Brown, and that’s the tragedy of not being able to travel back in time without being confronted with the ills of racism, while Marty and Doc have the privilege of traveling back in time without being scarred by the violence of Jim and Jane Crow that became a linchpin of the 1950’s and 60’s. There’s no way Black scientist would hop in a DeLorean and be absent minded of the event that defined 1955……the death of Emmett Till. Although most of us 80’s babies are fans of the Back to the Future installments, See You Yesterday, belongs to the genre of tragedy just as much as it belongs to the genre of science-fiction because it forces us to wrestle with the what-ifs of our racialized existence.

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