September 16, 2019

Where Are All the Black Time Travelers?

“Loopholes, resurrected characters, plot resets, ever-branching arcs: time travel is an infinitely flexible conceit, limited only to its own pseudoscientific rules of causality. The new Netflix movie “See You Yesterday” makes an unusual contribution to the time-travel canon while highlighting one of its most prominent flaws: the racial privilege baked into these stories, or the dangers of time-travelling while black.

From Marty McFly to James Cole and even Wolverine, time travellers are almost always white and frequently male. It’s a practical choice on the part of writers. Post-Reconstruction? Not a problem. Colonial times? Let’s make it a three-day weekend. Time-travel shows and movies tend to fall into one of two categories: quaint personal journeys and heroic quests. In stories like “Back to the Future,” “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” and “The Butterfly Effect,” the scale is that of a personal narrative, with a white protagonist comfortably insulated from a larger racial history. On the other hand, in stories like “12 Monkeys,” “The Terminator,” and “Timecop,” the central conflict is so large—apocalypse, dystopias, national or global disasters—that the narrative can easily sweep past issues of race. (As for forward time-travelling, the future tends to be surprisingly post-racial, as evinced in “Star Trek” and “Doctor Who.”)

“See You Yesterday,” which was produced by Spike Lee, takes a different approach. Its protagonists, C.J. and Sebastian, are black teen-age geniuses who figure out the secret to time travel for a science expo at school. When C.J.’s older brother is shot dead by police, she decides to go back in time to prevent his murder. Though the movie encounters some of the usual pitfalls of time-travel plots (predictability, muddled rules) and sports some hokey, eighties-style special effects, what it offers in terms of diversity and messaging is a treasure. As C.J. and Sebastian work out the fantastical science of time travel in a garage, it feels practical, grounded in the reality of black American life. The two don’t set out to change the world or alter their own lives, nor do they jump far into the past or future for an excellent Bill and Ted–style adventure. They’re not thrilled to have one-upped Einstein; they just want to get scholarships to college so they can leave their neighborhood. And C.J. just wants her brother back. Their actions and motivations are contained to this one very real instance of police brutality, so the plot never loses its footing in the real world.”

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