Director Stefon Bristol and co-writer Fredica Bailey discuss new contemporary time travel film.
A couple of years ago, The Shadow League had a conversation with a young man named Stefon Bristol about his culturally-relevant sci-fi short titled See You Yesterday, executive produced by Spike Lee and starring Eden Duncan-Smith, Dante Crichlow and Brian Bradley aka Astro.
After years of hard work, the finished product is set to drop on Netflix. The feature length film deals with time travel in way that is like nothing I had ever seen because of the manner in which sci-fi elements were combined with the contemporary plague of police brutality in urban areas.
Last week, the feature-length version of See You Yesterday premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival to applause and adulation. Time, imagined in the linear sense, moves us all forward along its arc whether we want to go or not.
However, in See You Yesterday, protagonists CJ and Sebastian, played by Eden and Dante, are two genius level students at Bronx Science Academy who have concocted a way to create room-temperature reactors that are capable of time travel. Though their intelligence is easy to surmise, they’re still part of the environment in which they dwell (Brooklyn) and are thus vulnerable to all it entails.
But with a time machine, the duo can shape the world to their liking, or can they? Recently, I sat down with writer-director Stefon Bristol and co-writer Fredrica Bailey to discuss the ins and outs of See You Yesterday, slated to premiere on Netflix on May 17.
High school best friends and science prodigies C.J. and Sebastian spend every spare minute working on their latest homemade invention: backpacks that enable time travel. But when C.J.’s older brother Calvin dies after an encounter with police officers, the young duo decide to put their unfinished tech to use in a desperate bid to save Calvin.
The Shadow League: Time travel is one of my favorite sub-genres of storytelling however, to do it right can be a daunting task. What gave you the confidence to try that on your first film?
Fredrica Bailey: I love sci-fi. Stefon and I love the same genres. I also think there’s a great history of sci-fi. You have the otherworldly aspect of it but it also speaks to the current world and current society.
I think we also do that as well. We have this action and adventure going on but we couple that with the real world and the real society where we talk about police brutality. We still talk about this issue that’s something we need to work on and to figure out.
Stefon Bristol: I’ve always been a lover of sci-fi just because sci-fi is awesome. I grew up watching Back to the Future and also Jurassic Park. What this reminds me of is that, although living is dangerous, life will always find a way. It struck a chord with me because here’s a genre that we can bring to anybody who just wants to have fun but there are underlying messages you could leave with from the theater.
Recently, the idea of escapism is needed but too much of it is ridiculous. It just leaves us stagnant as far as what’s going on in our current world. I love the Avengers, I love Superman, Spider-Man, but most times when I leave the theater I feel like it was entertaining but I didn’t leave with anything. You missed an opportunity to inspire the audience. It’s inspirational enough to see superheroes, but I feel like they missed an opportunity to say more. Except for Infinity War. That was hot! And Black Panther!
TSL: Black films are more diverse than they’ve ever been. Was that an inspiration for you?
Stefon Bristol: I had been planning this for a while. The seed had already been planted. It was always there. I just wondered why nobody saw the potential for success from it because of the stupid ass notion in Hollywood that black people can’t sell films. Straight Outta Compton ruined that myth. Fast and Furious ruined that myth.
Black Panther, obviously, ruined that myth. I’ve recently learned that African American films sell around the world, it’s just that there are sales agents and sales people that are very racist and can’t and don’t want to see the potential for these films. Therefore, they do not work for these films.
TSL: The protagonists in this film are so “New York” that I feel I’ve met them each before in one iteration or another. How important was authenticity to you?
FB: It was super important because we wanted to make sure it was authentic. We are speaking to young people and I wanted them to be able to see themselves in the film. Part of that is to make sure we did our research to make sure how they talk, how they communicate with each other.
What they like to do. We also had these great actors from Brooklyn. So that authenticity came through from them.
SB: For me, being from a Caribbean background, my philosophy is the more nuanced it is, the more universal it is. I’ve never seen people talk like that in a film. I’ve never seen a film where black immigrants get their shine on like this. I felt that was very important.
As far as the language of the film, this is a police brutality film. You can’t shy away from the authenticity of how teenagers talk. If a police officer is trying to get you on the ground he’s not going to say ‘Please get on the ground, sir’. You’re not going to hear that.
TSL: Who is the target audience of this film?
SB: I want the broader audience to understand that. Black people, we get it. But I want the broader audience to understand. There’s other things in this film for black people, but I wanted all audiences to realize how the media portrays it when a young black man or woman gets shot. How they always try to find some kind of blemish to warrant them being murdered.
It may be that they’re smoking weed in their apartment. So that’s the reason they give for an officer to go in the wrong apartment and shoot someone. A guy may have robbed a bodega a couple days ago, and they’ll say that warrants him being shot dead in the middle of the street. And I’m tired of that kind of narrative. So what I did with these particular teenagers in this film is to have little blemishes as possible.
By the time this happens, the audience will already love them for who they are. For the specific culture, I don’t want to shy away from anything like that. To understand us, you have to see us and see us in a real way. I’m tired of a lot of these white folks thinking that we’re crazy. We’re not!
TSL: Michael J. Fox is in the time travel movie hall of fame, and he’s in your movie! Please, tell me what that experience was like?
SB: That was one of the best days of my life, I shit you not. I have really good days, but that was like a dream come true. I remember as a kid, me and my sister watching it on the floor in Coney Island, Brooklyn just watching Back to the Future 1, 2 and 3. I was a kid, man and I loved it. Now I’m 31-years-old and I’m directing him. Makes no sense.
My family was dirt poor growing up in Guyana. I was born here so I had food in my belly every day. So I’m lucky. But I’m actually a descendant of people from Guyana who had a very difficult background economically and socially.
To come to America and direct a film like that was amazing. He was a joy to work with and he didn’t even read the script to do the scene. He read a letter that we wrote to him and he just said ‘Yeah, I did it because of the letter.’