Sun. Oct 2nd, 2022

Director Stefan Bristol’s Until yesterday is something of an anomaly in the pantheon of time travel movies, which span multiple genres. With its central tragedy, theme focused on the unintended consequences of new technology, and a strong social conscience, it is more black mirror then Back to the future† As such, it fits nicely into a small subset of quietly innovative time travel films like the one from 2012 safety not guaranteed

The premise: Two teenage science nerds in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood build a makeshift time machine to right a tragic mistake. CJ (Eden Duncan-Smith) and her best friend and fellow scientist Sebastian (Dante Crichlow), nicknamed Bash, have just completed their freshman year at the Bronx High School of Science. They’re putting the finishing touches on some wearable time-travel devices for an upcoming science fair, and they’re naturally ecstatic when they pass their next attempt at a temporary displacement test, traveling back a full day.

That light-hearted tone soon darkens. In an all-too-familiar scenario, CJ’s older brother Calvin (the rapper Astro) encounters a trigger-happy NYPD cop, who sees Calvin pull a cell phone out of his pocket for a weapon and shoot him dead. CJ thinks she and Sebastian can use their science project to travel back in time to save Calvin. Who among us would not want to try to reverse such a tragedy? But as you might expect, there are some serious unintended consequences for her plan.

“We are very free in how we express ourselves to each other. That doesn’t mean we are troublemakers.”

Until yesterday is Bristol’s first feature film, based on a 2017 short film co-written by Fredrica Bailey and shown at the American Black Film Festival. Bristol was a graduate student of New York University film school when he wrote the first script in 2014. Originally, the film was supposed to be about a young teenager who builds a time machine to prevent his friend from being killed by a drunk driver, but a few real-life tragedies changed the focus.

In July of that year, a young black man named Eric Garner died after being put into a chokehold by a Staten Island police station. A month later, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officers in Ferguson, Missouri. Those murders (plus several others since) and the wave of protests they unleashed sprang into the script Bristol was writing. His professor advised him to either take a powerful scene about police brutality because it didn’t fit with the rest of the developing story, or make that the main story.

In the final cut (which was produced by Spike Lee and debuted at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival), those tensions play out in a series of perfectly escalating scenes that show how easy, shall we say, an innocent, yet intense, argument between a brother and sister on the street corner can be misinterpreted by patrolling police as a harbinger of violence simply because it involves a young black man. It’s the kind of situation black men like Bristol face almost every day. “Not only my skin color, but also the lack of understanding of my culture will manipulate cops into thinking we are prone to violence,” Bristol said. “It’s just black people who are black people. We’re very free in how we express each other. It doesn’t mean we’re troublemakers, it doesn’t mean we’re crazy. It’s just the way we do things.”

Run as fast as she can to save a life - and perhaps end a cycle of senseless violence.
enlarge Run as fast as she can to save a life – and perhaps end a cycle of senseless violence.

Netflix

Bristol was born and raised in Brooklyn and so were many of the cast members: Astro, Duncan-Smith and Crichlow, for example. The director wanted them all to be “authentic, unashamedly black,” representing a broad swath of the people you’d meet through Flatbush on any given day. Calvin is tough and smart on the street—and super protective of his hot-tempered, whip-smart younger sister, likes it or not—while Sebastian is a good-natured, softer soul. There’s the boastful Lothario, the lovely granny, the nerdy science nerd with a crush, the strict but loving single mom, and yes, a couple of young men robbing a supermarket. That diversity is intentional. “There are different layers of what being black is in New York, and also in the country,” the director told Ars. “Those are just different ways of being black.”

While this is technically a time travel movie, the trope is more of a framing device, not the heart of the movie. In other words, don’t expect it to adhere to real world physics. Until yesterday however, has its own underlying set of rules that impose limits and help direct the story. Bristol deliberately avoided watching other time travel films so as not to be unduly influenced by them. He read a few books about time travel and time machines, and the director then talked to a physics professor at NYU about how best to tackle that aspect of the story. “At the end of the discussion he said, ‘Hey man, time travel isn’t real. You can make up your own rules,'” Bristol said. “I’m not a STEM expert, and I don’t need to be. I just wanted to tell a story about these kids.”

“Make the most of your future, because the future is bigger than you think.”

Among the limitations explicitly set out: There are a limited number of times the teens can travel back in time, and there is only so far back that they can go. Bristol admits that there were originally many more (fictional) technicalities about how the time travel device worked and what the specific rules would be. But in the editing room, he and his film editor, Jennifer Lee, decided there was just too much explanatory dialogue. Much of that has been cut out to focus on the central story — and the underlying message: All actions have consequences.

That theme is articulated early on in a cameo by Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly himself) as CJ and Sebastian’s science teacher, Mr. Lockhart. He asks them to consider the ethical and philosophical complexities inherent in time travel: what to decide to change and what to leave intact in the timeline. Sebastian also has some doubts: “It’s about control over something that we clearly have no control over.”

The less said about the ending, the better, as it is designed to spark reflection and debate. “When people are done watching the film, I want them to have a conversation,” Bristol said.

Despite all the tragic elements in its film, Bristol hopes it also sends a message of hope. “I want to tell people that what happened in the past is the reason you are here today,” he said. “I wouldn’t change anything in my past, [even though] I wish I had done some things differently. If I hadn’t been through what I’ve been through, I wouldn’t be having this success now. So make the most of your future, because the future is bigger than you think.”

Until yesterday premiered on Netflix last week and is currently available for streaming

Trailer for Until yesterday

Listing image by YouTube/Netflix

By akfire1

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