By Nick Romano
April 22, 2019 at 09:00 AM EDT

Brooklyn teen tech prodigy C.J. Walker faces an ethical quandary posed by her teacher: if time travel were possible, what would you go back to do? In EW’s exclusive trailer for Netflix’s See You Yesterday, her mission is clear.

The directorial feature debut of Stefon Bristol, a mentee of BlacKkKlansman Oscar winner Spike Lee, has “something very strong to say,” the freshman filmmaker told EW over the phone.

C.J. (Eden Duncan-Smith) and her best friend Sebastian Thomas (Dante Crichlow) are the kind of city kids who run an underground Genius bar out of their garage for their Caribbean neighborhood and casually discover the secret to time travel for their high school science project (no biggie). Bristol balances these fun nods to the era of Back to the Future and Ghostbusters (their time machines look strikingly similar to proton packs) with the more traumatic subject of police brutality.

When C.J.’s older brother (Brian “Astro” Bradley) is fatally gunned down by police in the streets, her invention with Sebastian becomes her Hail Mary to right this wrong. But, as Sebastian warns, “this is about controlling something we obviously have no control over.”

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“I love superhero movies, I’ll go see the Avengers, Spider-Man, but when I leave I feel empty,” Bristol explains. “Escapism is great, but too much of escapism only leaves our people stagnant. There’s no more growth. What I hope to do is figure out how to take a strong message and somehow make it digestible for everybody, not just for a black audience but everybody. This is still a conflict that’s happening. Right now, understandably so, the lens of police brutality is going down a little bit in the media because we have so many other problems that we have to deal with. I still have something to say about it. It’s still here.”

The idea for See You Yesterday began in 2014 in short film form for Bristol’s graduate thesis at New York University’s Tisch school, a time that coincided with police gunning down Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and not far off from the trial of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida in 2012.

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“I wrote a feature first before I shot the short,” he says. “Everybody wanted to do a feature. I thought, if everybody’s gonna do a feature, I’m gonna do a feature, too.”

That March, Bristol went to Lee, who teaches in Tisch’s graduate film program, with the idea to shoot the feature that same July. “He told me I was delusional,” Bristol laughs. So did the rest of his professors, but he’s grateful because he would team with screenwriter Fredrica Bailey (from the dramatic writing program) and the short would become a proof-of-concept.

“Based on the short,” Bristol says, “the characters were built out so much that I threw the original first draft for the feature out the window and started from scratch.”

Bristol received the Spike Lee Production Grant at NYU in 2016 for his short, and, better still, Lee agreed to produce the planned feature. Bristol once worked as Lee’s assistant on BlacKkKlansman had observed: “how he’d make a feature film.”

“He made it seem very easy and I was focused on trying to do his style,” he notes, “but once I was on set [of See You Yesterday] it was never like that. I had to find my own rhythm.” Lee, he adds, “read every single draft” and “gave critical notes,” but “wasn’t really pushing an agenda at all.”

“That’s the producer you need,” Bristol explains, “producers who just trust you and who allow you to make mistakes and give you advice on how to fix it but won’t propose their agenda or anything onto you. That’s what I needed.”

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In total, it’s been a five-year process to make the feature film for See You Yesterday.

As Bristol and Bailey continued workshopping the script, Lee helped them shop the project around to studios before the film ultimately landed at Netflix, where Lee developed She’s Gotta Have It. Bristol recalls how they “went back and forth” and “had fights with Netflix about what should be in the script what should not,” but it always came back to “the characters and their relationship as a family.”

“If that didn’t work, then the inevitable death of the older brother wouldn’t work,” he says. “We had to make sure we understood the family and understood who the family is.”

Last Thursday, speaking just days after post-production on See You Yesterday concluded, Bristol feels grateful. He remembers times during the development process when he was broke and couldn’t pay rent. At one point, Lee gave him a loan to hold him over until the film started earning money.

“I’m blessed, but at the same time I feel survivor’s remorse because there are other filmmakers who are like me, who are making a lot of sacrifices, who are trying to make their first feature film,” Bristol says. “Thank God that I have what I have and that I’m prepared for it. It’s just that it’s a weird experience.”

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See You Yesterday will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on May 3 before dropping on Netflix May 17.

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