In ‘See You Yesterday,’ time travelers can’t escape the ugly present New Spike Lee production brings Black Lives Matter to the science fair

Not even scientific genius has the power to outrun unscrupulous police.

That’s the macabre but justifiable takeaway from See You Yesterday, the debut feature film from director Stefon Bristol, streaming Friday on Netflix.

Two science-loving best friends, Claudette “CJ” Walker (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian J. Thomas (Danté Crichlow), are on a mission to turn back time. The two built a nifty set of personalized time machines that fit in their backpacks and will suck them through a wormhole, where they’ve got roughly 10 minutes to course-correct their lives before heading back to the present.

Danté Crichlow (left) and Eden Duncan-Smith (right) play Claudette “CJ” Walker and Sebastian J. Thomas, who are on a mission to turn back time in hopes of saving a life.

Courtesy of Netlfix

Co-written by Bristol and Fredrica Bailey and produced by Spike Lee, See You Yesterday at first appears to be a fun science fiction ride that happens to be about two West Indian kids obsessed with physics. Michael J. Fox makes a cameo as their science teacher. When she’s not tinkering with her time-traveling jetpack, CJ plunges into books such as Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. CJ and Sebastian live in East Flatbush, the heart of West Indian Brooklyn, New York, and they face questions about their relationship status from nosy grandparents who admonish them in accented English to please stop making things go boom in the garage.

But everything explodes when CJ sees her older brother Calvin (Astro) shot and killed by police for a bodega robbery he didn’t commit. Just like that, the stakes of time travel immediately ratchet from something that could win Sebastian and CJ the Westinghouse Award to a way to save a life — if only they can figure out how to properly wield their newfound power.

And so See You Yesterday takes a hard, grief-stricken turn, one that feels especially odd given the overall lighthearted tone Bristol chooses to tell the story. But thematically, it aligns with the “Replay” episode of Jordan Peele’s reimagining of The Twilight Zone, in which a mother played by Sanaa Lathan keeps trying to prevent her son from being killed by a bloodthirsty Virginia state trooper with the aid of a magic camcorder that rewinds life with the touch of button.

When black men and boys are targeted by police, it is their mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts and cousins who are left to pick up their broken bits of their grief and make something of it. Or, in these two cases, try to prevent their deaths from happening in the first place.

In The Hate U Give, Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder after she witnesses her friend get fatally shot by a police officer. In See You Yesterday and “Replay,” that trauma takes on an even more tortuous edge. Not only do the women see their loved ones killed, they’re convinced that they can prevent it from happening, and so they try, over and over and over.

As CJ, Duncan-Smith gives a note-perfect performance, as do Thomas and Astro. But no matter the inspired cinematography or considered, authentic performances, these stories carry a weight of inevitability as they suck every particle of hope out of the air.

An unshakable fatalism blows through both “Replay” and See You Yesterday. The male characters eventually surrender to fate, leaving the anguished women who love them tilting at windmills to revive what is gone.

I don’t fault Bristol or Peele for refusing to make work that would make them seem like Pollyannas. Rather, it’s a shame that black innocence has been decimated so completely that even a film about earnest, time-traveling teens cannot outrun the weight of impending death and injustice at the hands of the state.

HBO’s new ‘Native Son’ still can’t figure out Bigger Thomas Latest adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel excises some of the crucial violence against a black woman

Nobody knows what to do with Bigger Thomas.

The lead character of Richard Wright’s seminal 1940 novel, Native Son, is one of the most frustrating in American literature. The latest evidence is a new film adaptation written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by visual artist Rashid Johnson in his feature film debut. It airs at 10 p.m. Saturday on HBO.

The Bigger Wright left us on the page is a 20-year-old black man who lives in a one-room Chicago tenement with his brother, sister and mother in 1939. In Wright’s opening scene, Bigger wakes up in the family’s freezing apartment and pounds a giant rat to death with an iron skillet. Bigger is bitterly aware of the limitations his race and class have predetermined for him, and so are his friends. They have nothing, and so they rob other black folks of their tiny bit of something. Bigger seems doomed to a small, miserable life until he gets a job across town as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family, the Daltons. The Daltons don’t consider themselves racists, but they benefit handsomely from the structural circumstances that have placed a boot upon Bigger’s neck.

What follows is tragic: A panicked Bigger accidentally kills the Dalton heiress, Mary, whose kindness and uninformed, if well-intentioned, habitual racial line-stepping do more to endanger Bigger than help him. After a night out with her boyfriend, Jan, Mary drunkenly invites Bigger, who’s driven her home, to her bedroom. Bigger assents, hoping to simply settle Mary in her room before stealing off to his own in the back of the house. Instead, he smothers her to death out of fear they’ll be discovered and he’ll be fired. Afterward, Bigger shoves Mary’s body into the mansion’s furnace.

When reporters discover bones and jewelry among the furnace’s ashes, Bigger flees. He explains to his girlfriend, Bessie, how he ended up killing Mary, then rapes and kills Bessie too, disposing of her body down an air shaft. When he’s finally caught, Bigger is bound for the executioner’s chair.

Needless to say, this is not a character who inspires sympathy. The HBO movie is the third attempt to bring Bigger to life on film. (In 1941, Orson Welles produced and directed the story as a play.) Wright actually starred as Bigger in a 1951 version of Native Son filmed in Argentina by the Belgian director Pierre Chenal. A 1986 version, with Victor Love as Bigger, had a big-name Hollywood cast, including Matt Dillon, Elizabeth McGovern, Geraldine Page and Oprah Winfrey.

Each of them has had to struggle with hard questions about Wright’s central character: How much of Bigger’s awfulness can be attributed to a country that twisted him into a murderer and how much of his evil is individual? Is cruelty from those denied dignity inevitable or a choice? Is Bigger a person or a literary device manufactured to inspire horror?

Nearly 80 years after Native Son was first published, we’re still searching for answers.


Ashton Sanders, as Bigger Thomas in HBO’s Native Son, stands in front of “The Bean,” a landmark public sculpture in downtown Chicago.

Chris Herr/HBO

This latest film adaptation, produced by A24 (the company behind Moonlight, Lady Bird and First Reformed) has the distinction of being the brainchild of a student of James Baldwin — Parks studied creative writing under Baldwin at Mount Holyoke College.

Baldwin famously seethed at Wright’s interpretation of black life and dismissed Native Son as a “protest novel” full of one-dimensional stereotypes, and he likened Bigger to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom.

“Bigger is Uncle Tom’s descendant, flesh of his flesh, so exactly opposite a portrait that, when the books are placed together, it seems the contemporary Negro novelist and the dead New England woman are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle; the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses,” Baldwin wrote in the essay Everybody’s Protest Novel. And yet Baldwin softened his stance toward Wright and Native Son after Wright’s death in 1960. Wrote Baldwin in Alas, Poor Richard:

Shortly after we learned of Richard Wright’s death, a Negro woman who was rereading Native Son told me that it meant more to her now than it had when she had first read it. This, she said, was because the specific social climate which had produced it, or with which it was identified, seemed archaic now, was fading from our memories. Now, there was only the book itself to deal with, for it could no longer be read, as it had been in 1940, as a militant racial manifesto. Today’s racial manifestoes were being written very differently, and in many languages; what mattered about the book now was how accurately or deeply the life of Chicago’s South Side had been conveyed.

The ambivalence Bigger inspires in Baldwin and others has come to be one of his defining characteristics. In 1986, Temple University professor David Bradley, writing an introduction for a new edition of the novel, shared his roller coaster of emotions about Native Son, which fluctuated with each new reading.

Is Bigger a person or a literary device manufactured to inspire horror? Nearly 80 years after Native Son was first published, we’re still searching for answers.

Both the 1986 film and the new one struggle with the monstrousness of Bigger’s actions — and both decided to dull them. Neither one includes Bigger’s rape and murder of Bessie. It’s the biggest omission from both versions, and especially notable in this latest adaptation, given how much Parks and Johnson elected to change.

They removed Bigger from the South Side of 1939 and dropped him into modern-day Chicago, simultaneously eradicating the bleakness of Bigger’s life as Wright fashioned it. Bigger no longer shares a one-room apartment with his mother, sister and brother but rather a multiroom unit with space for a dining table where the family gathers regularly. His mother, Trudy (Sanaa Lathan), is an ambitious paralegal eyeing law school, not a desperate washerwoman consigned to abject poverty. Trudy has a romantic partner, a do-gooder lawyer named Marty (David Alan Grier). The Thomas household is warm and structured, and there isn’t nearly as much pressure on Bigger to get a job to prevent his family from being turned out on the street.

Bigger, too, has undergone renovation. Played by Ashton Sanders (best known for portraying high school-age Chiron in Moonlight), this modern Bigger sports green hair, black fingernail polish, and an assortment of black coats and jackets customized with graffiti and patches. He’s an Afropunk and an anarchist who prefers the sounds of Bad Brains, Minor Threat and Death, as opposed to, say, Chief Keef. Sanders is tall and lanky, and he mostly plays Bigger as a quiet kid who folds into himself but who can be goaded into violent outbursts. His girlfriend, Bessie (KiKi Layne), has been transformed from a figure of pitiable, gin-soaked scorn into a sober and sensible hairdresser.

From the book to the screen, Wright’s white characters remain the most static. Mrs. Dalton is always blind, and Mr. Dalton is always the dutiful limousine liberal who sees himself as doing what he can to help the downtrodden Negroes on the other side of town. Mary Dalton (Margaret Qualley) and her boyfriend, Jan Erlone (Nick Robinson), remain a couple of rebellious anti-capitalists (here, they’re Occupy Wall Street sympathizers) thumbing their noses at Mr. Dalton’s money and privilege while simultaneously enjoying it.


Ashton Sanders and KiKi Layne in Native Son.

Thomas Hank Willis/HBO

The urge to use a new adaptation of Native Son as a corrective to the perceived faults of Wright’s original work is understandable, especially when its setting, Chicago, is repeatedly slandered as a cesspool of black cultural pathologies. Its murder rate trails that of several other cities, and yet it’s seen as an avatar for gun violence and a favorite example of those looking to deploy the whataboutism of “black-on-black” crime. Chicago is the home of Emmett Till and Laquan McDonald, and somehow also the place that produced Barack Obama and Harold Washington. Victims of white supremacy and heroes who manage to dodge it are much easier to hold in one’s head. But where do we place Bigger?

If we take him as Wright wrote him, perhaps the only appropriate place is exile. Maybe that’s why the resulting Bigger imagined by Parks and Johnson is far more sympathetic than Wright’s original rendering. For instance, Johnson neglects to show Bigger decapitating Mary once he realizes her body is too big to fully fit in the furnace. And in this modern version, Bigger never makes it to jail, much less a trial. He’s gunned down by Chicago police officers the moment they find him.

Parks and Johnson gesture at Bigger’s violence toward Bessie — he begins to strangle her but doesn’t go through with the deed. Bigger’s sexual violence, though, is completely eliminated. When I spoke to Johnson recently at HBO’s offices in New York, he told me that he thought of Bessie’s survival as the truest outcome for this retelling.

“We can’t murder and rape Bessie.”

“Between 1939 and today, stories around violence towards women and the way that we interpret them has changed dramatically,” Johnson said. “I was raised by a black woman who’s an academic and a feminist. I am not capable of telling stories where a woman is treated violently in the respect that Bigger treats Bessie in the book. That’s not something that I’m interested in.

“I think it neuters the other aspects of the story that are quite complicated around both race, class, etc. I think that it does a damage to the story and its contemporary telling, that story cannot survive. So we’d originally written it with the murder of Bessie and the rape of Bessie and the story, and I read that version in the script because we tried to keep as much in as possible in our early stages of interpreting it. And I called Suzan-Lori Parks very early in the morning and I said, ‘There’s something that is very challenging for me,’ and she said, ‘We can’t murder and rape Bessie.’ ”

Yet black and Native American women today experience the highest rates of death as a result of intimate partner violence, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wright’s Native Son, in part, is a tale of black masculinity, disfigured by white supremacy and run amok. It is a horror story, in the way that Toni Morrison’s Beloved can be seen as horror too.

In 2015, when Straight Outta Compton was released, hip-hop journalist Dee Barnes wrote about the violence she experienced at the hands of Dr. Dre. “There is a direct connection between the oppression of black men and the violence perpetrated by black men against black women,” she wrote. “It is a cycle of victimization and reenactment of violence that is rooted in racism and perpetuated by patriarchy.”

It’s impossible to separate the murder and rape of Bessie from any discussion about how race and class have victimized Bigger. The same factors contribute to Bigger’s abuse of Bessie, although they do not excuse it. We can see a contemporary example of this dynamic in Erik Killmonger, the villain of Black Panther. Like Bigger, Killmonger is meant to engender sympathy, for the United States turned him into what he is: a psychopathic human instrument of death seeking revenge and power. And yet, for all his wokeness regarding imperialist theft, Killmonger has little regard for women. He does not hesitate to kill them, and he certainly doesn’t have any remorse about it.

When we turn away from black misogyny, as Parks and Johnson do, and as filmmaker F. Gary Gray did in Straight Outta Compton, we do a disservice to black women’s lived reality — the stories preserved on-screen tell an incomplete truth.

This new Native Son from Parks and Johnson doesn’t answer many of the questions Wright presents. Rather, it leaves us with even more questions: How can a film adaptation work if it excises one of the most horrifying scenes in its source material? And can Native Son truly capture the worst effects of America’s subjugation of black people if it turns away from the mortal injuries that befall black women as a result of it?

It’s almost Christmas: the 11 best black holiday films ever — and ranked From Queen Latifah to Ice Cube to Gabrielle Union and Fat Albert — it’s time to dig in

After Big Mama and Big Daddy clear the table of fried turkey, mac ’n’ cheese, collards, potato salad and more — and after the last football game ends — it’s time to head to the movies with a slice of pie. But instead of vegging out to watch marathons of delicious reality shows (you know you’ll do that on another day this holiday season!), fire up the On Demand, your fave streaming service or the Blu-ray and check out every one of these holiday favorites.

11. The Last Holiday (2006)

Not one of my favorite Queen Latifah film moments, but when this bad boy comes on cable, it’s hard to change the channel. The Queen is a sweet store assistant named Georgia who thinks she’s dying — so she cashes it all in to take a super grand vacation before she kicks the bucket. She may not be dying, though! And it turns out her super secret crush (played by LL Cool J) likes her back! #BlackLove

 

10. The Perfect Holiday (2007)

Some of your faves star in this little-seen (but it’s not too late!) holiday flick. Gabrielle Union, Morris Chestnut, Charlie Murphy and Terrence Howard all appear in this romantic comedy — and it’s narrated by Queen Latifah. Chestnut is an aspiring songwriter, and Union is a divorced woman with three kids and is in desperate need of a good word from a good man. In the end, will everything be beautiful? Surely. And what more could you want on Christmas?!

 

9. This Christmas (2007)

The official holiday track for black households everywhere is Donny Hathaway’s most excellent 1970 “This Christmas,” so it’s fitting that we get a holiday film about all of the obstacles that a typical family has to overcome. Also: The cast in this one is STACKED. Delroy Lindo, Idris Elba, Loretta Devine, singer Chris Brown, Columbus Short, Regina King, Sharon Leal, Lauren London and Mekhi Phifer all have roles.

 

8. Black Nativity (2013)

Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) directs this feature film based on a Langston Hughes play. The big cast includes Oscar winners Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker, Tyrese, Angela Bassett, Mary J. Blige, Jacob Latimore, Vondie Curtis-Hall and Nas. Yet the film didn’t perform well at the box office. Maybe it should get another look this holiday season?

 

7. Almost Christmas (2016)

Storyteller David E. Talbert gives us a story centered on a patriarch (Danny Glover) who is mourning the recent death of his wife and trying to keep the rest of his family together. Another star-studded cast helps bring this family holiday tale to life: Gabrielle Union, Kimberly Elise, Oscar winner Mo’Nique, Nicole Ari Parker, Keri Hilson, Jessie Usher, Omar Epps and Romany Malco.

 

6. The Kid Who Loved Christmas (1990)

This is Sammy Davis Jr.’s last screen performance — and he only appears briefly. But this is a sweet, poignant story about young Reggie (Trent Cameron), an orphan who is juuuuuuust about to be adopted by a jazz musician (Michael Warren) and his wife (Vanessa Williams). Tragically, right as the adoption is almost done, Williams dies in a car accident and a social worker (Esther Rolle) doesn’t approve of the adoption. Grab your Kleenex.

 

5. Fat Albert’s Christmas Special (1977)

All the ’70s kids, and those younger ones with cool parents, grew up watching this animated series that was created by He Who Shall Not Be Named. This was a half-hour, animated prime-time TV special that saw the kids staging a production of a Nativity pageant in their junkyard clubhouse.

 

4. A Diva’s Christmas Carol (2000)

VH1 isn’t only good for a soapy reality TV series; it’s also gifted us with a remake of the Dickens classic starring an ego-driven singer portrayed by Vanessa Williams (as Ebony Scrooge!) who needs the type of check you cannot cash at the bank. TLC’s Chili also appears.

 

3. the best Man Holiday (2013)

If you don’t break down in tears toward the end of this film, you are not human. And you have no soul. Morris Chestnut’s Lance Sullivan is on the precipice of retiring from the NFL while also battling grief due to his severely ill wife, Mia (Monica Calhoun). The reunion of college friends — Harper (Taye Diggs), Robyn (Sanaa Lathan), Jordan (Nia Long), Chestnut, Calhoun, Julian (Harold Perrineau), Candace (Regina Hall), Quentin (Terrence Howard) and Shelby (Melissa De Sousa) — assembles some of the most gifted young working black actors out there. And the “Can You Stand the Rain” scene is forever.

 

2. The Preacher’s Wife (1996)

Denzel Washington is an angel in this beautiful family comedy directed by Penny Marshall. It’s a remake of 1947’s Bishop’s Wife — and this time it’s set in a poor New York City neighborhood. A Baptist preacher (Courtney B. Vance) is trying to get his parish out of financial trouble. Whitney Houston and that voice shine in this story, which earned her and Loretta Devine NAACP Image Awards.

 

1. Friday After Next (2002)

Damn you, Ice Cube! For making us wait all these years for another Friday movie. In the interim, we have this gem, which gives us more cousin Day Day comedy from Mike Epps. This Friday, Santa Claus is the neighborhood’s biggest bully — Rickey Smiley — as he robs Craig (Cube) and Day Day on Christmas Eve, getting away with presents and the rent money. The film feels like what most of our holidays are like: trifling relatives, lots of love and laughter and, if we’re lucky, a pink limousine to save the day. Much foolishness ensues, especially from Katt Williams, who is ridiculous as Money Mike.