The recent teen science-fiction film, “See You Yesterday” (2019) establishes its literary and cinematic lineage early with a scene where our protagonist C.J. Walker and her sidekick Sebastian, in time-honored teen movie tradition, conspire to borrow a few science project supplies while their high school teacher seems lost in a science fiction novel he’s reading. We see the book first, before being introduced to the instructor. He has his nose buried in the story and his face remains hidden behind the book’s cover.
The novel is Kindred, Octavia Butler’s 1979 sci-fi classic about a black woman from California who travels back in time to an antebellum plantation where she confronts slavery first-hand. That novel provides us with an early clue to the issues this movie plans to address, but the filmmakers don’t stop there.
We immediately recognize the teacher once he puts down the book. He’s aged by several decades, but Michael J. Fox still radiates the puckish charm he brought to the role of Marty McFly, the time-traveling teenager at the heart of the “Back to the Future” films. Now, Fox plays the benevolent teacher who’s onto his students’ plans. He’s not worried about the supplies, but he warns them about the dangers of time travel, establishing the standard rules about butterfly effects and unintended consequences.
This winking cameo from Fox effectively passes the teen time-traveler baton from Marty to C.J. and Sebastian. We accept them as the new generation of science nerds setting off on a series of wild adventures. And to a large extent that’s what the film delivers; however, after our heroes’ first leap into the past we discover there’s a huge difference here. These kids aren’t transported into some idyllic version of the 50’s where they need to save their parents’ marriage. They only jump a single day, and their desperate mission quickly becomes the need to save C.J.’s brother Calvin from being killed in an all-too-painfully-familiar scene of over-reactive police confronting a young black man on the street.
This mash-up of the lighthearted fun of “Back to the Future” with the simmering unease of “Do the Right Thing” (as well as the current moment of Black Lives Matter captured in the film “The Hate U Give”) works well as a sci-fi exploration of the intersection between fate and free will and the constant human desire to tinker with what’s wrong without changing what’s right, or even making things worse. “See You Yesterday” is a smart, fresh film. I hope you really enjoyed the movie. It offers some intriguing new perspectives on the various cultural touchstones from which it draws its ideas. Your answers to the discussion questions were great.
The only problem is, well, the news.
Even as we watched this film for our media studies series of teen movies, the police senselessly murdered yet another young black man on the streets of Minneapolis. People around the country are outraged. They’re protesting. And yet we know all too well that nothing has changed, nothing will change, and this will happen again. And again. And again.
As “See You Yesterday” amply demonstrates for us, we’re trapped in a loop. We can’t escape from the endless heartache of social injustice and the constant tragedy of institutional racism. Not even with a time machine.