Filmmaker Stefon Bristol has always been drawn to sci-fi and superhero genres. While audiences have relished in the escapism elements of these genres since Georges Méliès' 1902 sci-fi flick A Trip to the Moon, Bristol was enticed by them for their capacity to be more than escapism for Black viewers.
In the age of Black Lives Matter, Bristol's debut feature film See You Yesterday uses time travel to empower Black youth to deal with trauma in their community. See You Yesterday follows besties C.J. (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian Thomas (Danté Crichlow), two Brooklyn kids who uncover the secret for time traveling while working on a school science project. The duo put their newfound knowledge to work when the police murder C.J.'s older brother, Calvin (Brian "Astro" Bradley).
Bristol originally produced See You Yesterday as a short film to great acclaim for his graduate school thesis at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, where Spike Lee was his professor and mentor. Now, with Lee as a producer, Bristol has expanded the short into the feature film for Netflix that premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.
Just after its premiere, Shadow And Act spoke with Bristol about his feature film debut, fighting to tell his story and being called Spike Lee's protégé.
"I had a previous draft for the feature before," Bristol revealed. "I took a look at it, and it was trash, so I threw it out the window. My writing partner Fredrica [Bailey] felt that we said what we needed to say in the short, but I pushed back at her. Instinctually I knew that we could say more."
The short was less than 20 minutes long, and though it centered C.J. and Sebastian's journey to the past Bristol knew that a feature-length film could give the kids, their tight-knit Bed-Stuy community, and their relationships with family and friends more context and texture. "We knew what we were going to say with S.T.E.M. research, with young Black people in Brooklyn, and the Caribbean neighborhood," he explained. "You've never seen that before. I trusted my instincts, and I pushed Fredrica and was able to find something new. It was a trial and error—very trial and error."
Having lived with this story since 2014—after the murder of Mike Brown and the Ferguson uprising—Bristol was unwilling to concede when it came to certain aspects of his story, even when it meant battling with Netflix. "The conflicts were mostly time travel-related, which is kind of funny," he chuckled. "We wanted to make sure to get the time travel right because they were really concerned about the audience picking it apart. I personally didn't even give a shit, because I just wanted the audience to recognize these people, and understand them. When the inevitable happens you love these families, you love these people. That's all I cared about. Netflix had notes and changes, but I was like, 'No, we not doing that.' We had a lot of fights, but in the end, Netflix really wanted this to be the best film ever. We got it to where it needs to be. Shout out to Jennifer Lee, my wonderful editor. It was a double edged sword though, I had to manage people's expectations."
In addition to discovering time travel, C.J. and Sebastian travel to and from their elite Bronx high school to Brooklyn each day, and casually run a Genius repair bar and store out of Sebastian's grandparents' garage. "In a short film, you just have to get to the story, that's it," the NYU alum said. "You don't have time to indulge in the world of the characters. You have no time to indulge in their spaces. For the feature, we had time to luxuriate in that. There's the cook-out, the bodega, all that. That’s just my life. I just poured it on the page because I know that like the back of my hand. That was easy to write."
What did not come instinctively to Bristol was all of the intricacies of S.T.E.M.and the jargon that comes along with it. "It was not easy to write the science," he laughed. "I didn't do as much research in the short, because the short is a short," he said. "You're just in and out. But for the feature, Fredrica and I read quantum physics articles. I read a book about how to make your own time machine, theories of time travel, the theory of relativity, the wormhole theory, the multi-universe theory. I actually went to an NYU professor in the physics department. He broke it down a little bit, but at the end of the day, he told me to make up my own shit. I still had to figure out how to make it sound real, but Fredrica did a really nice job figuring out the language."
With his feature script solidified, Bristol was adamant about bringing back Eden Duncan-Smith and Danté Crichlow who starred in the short as C.J. and Sebastian, respectively. "They're brilliant," he said simply. "Eden and Danté are wonderful actors. They have the chops. I didn't want to find stars who are not from Brooklyn, who don't understand the culture. I've known them since they were 15, and they did a great deal for me on the short. It would be a slap in the face if I didn't bring them back. I told Spike, 'I want them back.' He said, 'Of course, if we can get them back, there's no question.' We argued with Netflix a little bit about it, but ultimately they understood the importance of seeing fresh new faces in a film like this, and I think that's really cool."
With the film debuting at the Tribeca Film Festival and dropping on Netflix May 17, Bristol knows things are about to get even more intense for him, especially since he's being heralded as Spike Lee's protégé. "I know who I am as a person," he reflected. "I'm still trying to find my voice. I'm just doing what I want to do. Spike never pressured anything on me, besides doing hard work, and putting in the work, and not f---king up."
With See You Yesterday officially in the world, this isn't the last time you'll hear Bristol's name. "I have some stuff cooking," he smirked coyly. "I'm just keeping my cards close."
See You Yesterday premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, May 3, 2019. The film will premiere on Netflix May 17, 2019.
Photo: NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 03: Director Stefon Bristol attends "See You Yesterday" - 2019 Tribeca Film Festival at SVA Theater on May 03, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide