(Photo from Netflix Original Movie - "See You Yesterday")
There are many ways to exist as a Black person. There are many things that Black people can do and are interested in. In fact, I would argue Black people, all across the African Diaspora, are only limited to their own imaginations. But, you would not come to this conclusion if you were forced to watch much of the now over 100 year history of American cinema (as a once dominant and, to this day, still popular form of entertainment). And quite honestly, that is a huge part of the problem. In cinema, movies, film, or whichever term you want to use, Black people have predominantly been relegated to the unmerciful, foul, and misrepresented images of the "white gaze."
The white gaze is a term and concept I was introduced to years ago, and not too long after I discovered that Toni Morrison really coined it or, at least, made it popular. It is a phenomenon that sucks the life out of Black life. It centers itself on white people at the expense of all others. It is a phenomenon that only considers white people: their feelings, their ideas,"culture," and perspective. It uses Black people to uplift the narrative of white people. Black people under the surveilling eyes of the white gaze are nothing more than objects or devices that help to facilitate growth in character and advance the journey of a white person. Black life, identity, and purpose is smothered and in place of its suffocated corpse lays a pathetic two-dimensional cutout conceived from the white imagination.
"What is the world like if he’s not there? And the freedom, the open world that appears is stunning. ... There was this free space opened up by refusing to respond every minute to … somebody else’s gaze. So that flavored a great deal of what I was writing. It still does,”
-- Toni Morrison
The representations of Black people in movies in the earliest days began with blackface. D.W. Griffith's vile work Birth of a Nation saw a white man in black paint depict the worst fears of white America. A guilty white America. A white America that understood the atrocities committed against Black Women and girls. The rape and torture they experienced at the hands of white male slaveowners, their sons, and friends. The white America that understood their history in this regard sought to rewrite history and depict Black men as the overly sexualized uncontrollable brute who preyed on the innocent white woman. This, of course, was a falsehood and the history then and now only proves that the white imagination can cause lasting, although not entirely irreversible, harm.
When Black actors actually played themselves on screen they were depicted as overly gracious, docile, and conciliatory. There was also the depiction of Black people as nothing more than ignorant jokes. Simultaneously, stereotypes that permeated the national consciousness made their way into the films being consumed by said society. They were depicted as domestics, uneducated, comedic fools, and always with some form of subservience. Things gradually changed as time progressed and doors were knocked down. That change continues and those doors are continuing to be knocked down.
In modern day cinema, however, there have been stereotypes that have previaled. One of those stereotypes is that of the all wise Black person, who helps to guide the white protagonist through whatever journey they are on without having much agency themselves. Another harmful stereotype, that is more so a theme or trope, doesn't actually depict Black people. This theme is that of the "white savior." Too often in movies, which has been consistently challenged with some tangible effect, Black characters or characters of color don't realize their worth, don't reach their potential, or cannot make it out of whatever adverse situation they may be in without the help of some mighty white person. This person gives them hope and guides them to the promised land like Pharaoh did for the Hebrew people. Oh wait... that was actually Moses, a Hebrew. And that is precisely my point, somehow, even when it is based on historical fact, the white savior trope finds its way into too many of the stories depicted on screens across the United States and even globally.
Freedom Writers, Lincoln, The Green Book (as the most recent film), 12 Years a Slave, and Free State of Jones are prominent examples of this trope, and, might I add, in some of the worst ways. Unfortunately, this list doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of how many movies use this trope. And the worst crime of all of these movies is that they are supposed to based on actual events that took place in history. In Freedom Writers centers on a white woman who becomes a teacher at an "inner city" school and "discovers" the more difficult life circumstances of many of her students. This prompts her to emphasize with them and stand up for them, which enables her to set them on a greater path. If you were to watch Lincoln, you would believe Frederick Douglas (who is inexplicably absent from the film) never put the 16th President's feet to the fire over slavery and that Black Abolitionists and freedom fighters never existed. The Green Book depicts a racist white man teaching a classically trained genius pianist, who is a Black man, how to be Black, all while never focusing on the historical significance for African Americans of the actual "Green Book." In 12 Years a Slave, the former free man, Solomon Northup, who was tricked into slavery is only freed because a good white man delivered a letter to his friends and family in the north. Free State of Jones follows a Mississippi farmer, who abandons the confederate cause to protect his family. He is labelled a deserter, which is another word for traitor in this context. He joins with Black people who have escaped slavery and other farmers like himself and leads them in a rebellion. I trust that you see where I am going with this.
Even when the narratives don't involve these stereotypes, themes, or tropes, there are still some major pitfalls that befall Black or African American representation in movies. When we have traditionally gotten a majority Black cast in a film or get a movie considered to be a "Black movie," they are too often (not all of the time) relegated to the realm of comedy, historical figures and occurrences, a story about the hood, sports, or depicting our struggles in some way. The movies that are considered "Black movies," have majority Black casts, or whose creative direction (those behind the camera) comes from Black people rarely go beyond that criteria, even though there are exceptions to this rule.
Growing up as a kid, I longed for greater representation of Black people in the entertainment that I enjoyed. From Star Wars to comics to cartoons, video games, and in all film genres I wanted more, but didn't always receive it. That is why in using my imagination, I placed myself in these things that I loved and even developed my own characters and ideas not beholden to the limited creations and perspectives of others. That is why I am so encouraged by this new wave that I see taking place across all forms of entertainment, but in movies in particular. The past few years have given us Get Out, Black Panther, Creed I & II, Us, A Wrinkle in Time (no matter what you think of it), and a host of other films with either a majority Black cast, Black creative team behind the scenes (director, writers, producers, costume/design, cinematography, etc.), centering Black lives, perspectives, and stories, or all of the above. And might I add that films like Crazy Rich Asians, as the most prominent example, are breaking through for those of Asian descent. The reality is that this wave is not only for Black people but for all people of color as well. Nevertheless, all of these movies tell unique stories that go beyond the limitations that often befall "Black movies," which I detailed earlier. This is particularly true for Get Out and Us, both written and directed by Jordan Peele. These are horror/thriller movies that are incredibly ridiculous and out there, while holding up a mirror to the audience revealing ugly truths about ourselves that need addressing. Now, the Netflix original movie See You Yesterday is continuing that wave that could very well usher in a completely new era.
See You Yesterday is a movie that was co-written and directed by Brooklyn filmmaker, Stefan Bristol. The movie also serves as his film debut. Spike Lee, who was Bristol's film school professor, also served as producer on the movie as it appears on Netflix. It is a movie that is very Black and very Brooklyn, you know, the un-gentrified part. Outside of a Spike Lee joint, rarely do you see this side of New York City. There is a culture that is unlike any other, and that shows up big time in this production. As someone who now lives and moves in the very space, culture, and time depicted in the film, I can tell you it took on an even greater level of importance to me. In addition, this film depicted two teenage genius prodigy's, CJ (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian (Dante Crichlow), who are Black. The pair of actors are also native to Brooklyn and are best friends in real life, which shines through in their acting on screen. They end up cracking the code, so to speak, on time travel, or, if you really want to be nerdy like our leads, "temporal relocation" and the rollercoaster begins from there.
CJ and Sebastian have to deal with the ramifications of trying to undo police violence and misconduct using their temporal relocation device. Valuable lessons are learned, and, quite frankly, not learned, which is all the more intriguing. For me, the ending leaves a lot to be desired. Whether or not you enjoy the ending is largely dependent upon what you value about storytelling and how much you enjoyed about the story that unfolded beforehand. There is not a neat bow that is tied, but that is in and of itself an acknowledgment about life itself. And again, this is coming from someone who took issue with the ending. Not being completely sold on the ending, however, doesn't prevent me from appreciating the art as a whole and even what that ending points to.
While not being perfect, See You Yesterday manages to be a very personal drama, science fiction epic (and pay homage to a classic), deeply rooted in the people, place, and time that it represents, all while dealing with deeply complicated subject matter and social commentary in a nuanced way. The two actors who play our lead protagonists personify that nuance. In reality, it's really CJ's story more than anything. And art certainly imitates reality as Eden Duncan-Smith is a physics major at Hampton University. Her performance carries the emotional weight of the film and is quite entertaining from a comedic perspective. I don't want to spoil anything for those who have not had the opportunity to see it, so I'll leave the details alone for now. What I will say is that this film fully embodies the reality that Black people are not the boxes that Hollywood or society tries to place us in.
The reality is that our stories do not have to be subject to their gaze. In fact, this movie continues to propel us toward a future where that gaze has no power. That is incredible to the 26 year old me, who still remembers being the young kid in the 90s and early 2000s, who clung tightly to the representation that existed, while longing for greater and more diverse representation in all aspects of the entertainment and media that I enjoyed consuming, and even that which I didn't.
I truly hope that the wave See You Yesterday represents truly develops into a full blown tsunami that tears down the old barriers and ushers in an irreversible new era for Black representation in film and entertainment. It is my hope that this will continue to inspire young Black girls and boys to not only believe that they can do and become anything they want to be, but be authentic to themselves in the process. Their imaginations will be their only barriers!
See You Yesterday premiered on Netflix May 17th