“Most futurists are ignorant of the history of Black people. This ignorance leads to significant gaps in their forecasts about the future. Many experts in reading and simulating the future are ignorant of Black history, and experts in Black history are often ignorant to the practices of forecasting and designing the future. When we understand how important it is for Black people to have the expertise to read the past in a way that reveals the future, we will put as much emphasis on Black futures as we do on Black history.”-- Hodari B. Davis (2022)
I’d like to trouble the 2019 Spike Lee film See You Yesterday. Situated in a climate where police brutality and Black death are hypervisible and seemingly normalized, the film suggests police brutality penetrates our everyday lives as Black folx, and exists even within the realm of the supernatural. Making the realities of systemic and structural violence inevitable. Set in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, NY, two young science wizzes Claudette Josephine (C.J.) Walker (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian Thomas (Dante Crichlow), create a half-finished backpack time machine in a family garage. After police officers murder C.J.’s brother, Calvin, she and Sebastian set out to use their invention to save his life. After several attempts to warn her brother or change the course of other actions leading to her brothers’ death, her brother still goes unsaved. Yet, in the final scenes of the film, she gears up again with her time-traveling backpack determined on her own – to try again to save her brother.
After watching this film for the first and only time a few years ago, I vividly remember feeling like my heart had been ripped out of my chest (yet again), and cried for about an hour. I enjoyed the films’ futuristic ideas and reframing of urban Black youth. I am an avid fan of Black media content created by Black folx of all genres, especially those that venture into the mysterious and supernatural. However, I’ve always hesitated watching films whose central storyline involves Black folx dying as a result of police brutality. I was reluctant to see this film as death positive. Personally, consuming the performance of Black death for entertainment is not productive and is triggering.
Yet, as a Black feminist media scholar, I understand the power and necessity for a radical reimagining of the futures of our past. This means in interpretation, living, being, naming, affirmation, validation, and narrative framing. Thus, what I offer here is a brief Black feminist articulation of two ways See You Yesterday could be in the realm of death-positive media (arguably at the margins), considerations for mediated Black futurity, and questions for further exploration of this film. I would argue that Blackness and systemic racism do, in fact, complicate analyzing this media text as solely death positive—I don’t foresee there ever being a time when mediated Black death can eradicate or subdue the very real impact of and/or the traumatizing experience of being the victim of or bearing observing Black death resulting from police brutality.
First, I draw from the late author, activist, and Black feminist bell hooks’ thoughts on how the oppressed form and cultivate resistance. hooks writes,
In resistance, the exploited, the oppressed work to expose the false reality– to reclaim and recover ourselves. We make the revolutionary history, telling the past as we have learned it mouth-to-mouth, telling the present as we see, know and feel it in our hearts and with our words (1989, p. 3).
The false reality, or narrative, resisted in films like See You Yesterday is one that pretends that police brutality and the system of policing are not deterrents to regular everyday Black living. I see this as Lee’s commentary on Black life in the present coupled with futuristic aspirations for survival and escape. He paints the picture that police brutality is inevitable and evasive. The pain of the impending Black death causes us to curate a path of least “resistance” that requires us to be ten steps ahead in order to make it alive and to the places we want to go.
I began this essay with a quote from Pan-African futurist Hodari B. Davis because studies and conceptual frameworks rooted in Black futures must include the vital role of media and representation. I am in no way a futurist, yet, I am vastly interested in the possibilities of mediated texts that are rooted in, explore, critique, and make visible Black futurity.
Thus, I humbly suggest See You Yesterday functions as a mediated Black future reality where police brutality might be escapable, however, it is contingent on brilliant technological advancement and innovation. Mediated Black futures are a necessary tool for resisting through imagining our future and reality.
Second, I lean on bell hooks again, who asserts,
Indeed, a fundamental task black critical thinkers has been the struggle to break with the hegemonic modes of seeing, thinking, and being that block our capacity to see ourselves oppositionally, to imagine, describe, and invent ourselves that are liberatory (2014, p. 2).
In See You Yesterday, there was never an attempt to change the actions of the officers that killed C.J.’s brother. I believe that Lee and other Black directors who are creating similar media texts are re-articulating a Black experience that requires us to consider far-fetched innovations, even a time-traveling backpack, to escape the pervasiveness and reality of violent policing. Although the film ends with this dreadful feeling of hopeful hopelessness, I’d like to think that Lee is signaling that we should remain hopeful about technological advancements that can supersede the impossible and lead us toward liberation and freedom.
In the current social climate where police brutality is hypervisible, other Black writers and directors are creating eerily similar sci-fyish plot lines that amplify the horror of reliving violent policing over and over. Where the butterfly effect meets systemic racism. And they are portraying, supernaturally, the difficulty and seemingly impossible task of circumventing police brutality. The 2020 film Two Distant Strangers on Netflix and the Season 1 Replay (Season 1, Episode 3) of the revamped show “The Twilight Zone” (hosted by Jordan Peele) have similar overarching themes and plots for comparison.
I read Spike Lee’s film See You Yesterday as a response to what American poet and activist June Jordan tells us: we are the ones we have been waiting for. Yet I still wonder, do Blackness and hypervisible police brutality diminish a possible underlying goal of the film’s message and meaning? What representations of Black death can be considered death positive? How productive is hopeful hopelessness?
Davis, H. B. (2022). "Black on Black Futures: A Call to Diversify the Discipline of Black Futuring." Journal of Futures Studies, 26(3), 89-95.
Hooks, B. (1989). Talking back: Thinking feminist, thinking black (Vol. 10). South End Press.
Hooks, B. (2014). Black looks: Race and representation.
Jordan, J. 1980. “Poem for South African Women.” Passion New Poems 1977–1980.