When I was a preteen obsessed with mythology and magical children’s fiction, I learnt the word “hamartia” from the Percy Jackson novels. A hamartia, otherwise known as a fatal flaw, is that characteristic within a hero that might eventually turn into their downfall. The goddess Athena claimed that the kind of hamartia with good motives behind it is usually the most dangerous kind. Unfortunately for me, nobody I ever read had a hamartia bad enough for me to take them seriously. Take Percy Jackson’s, for instance. His hamartia is “excessive loyalty” which is apparently dangerous because he would supposedly give up the world to save somebody he really cares about. Imagine giving a character a total virtue and making that their most dangerous problem. I love Percy, but he and the likes of Ned Stark can get out of my face as far as flawed characters are concerned.
It seems to me that the older I grew, the more tired I got of sanitized, wholly likeable characters. Perhaps this had something to do with relatability—as I have never considered myself likeable or sanitized. Not even well-mannered, if I’m being honest. But I think my tiredness had far more to do with credibility than personal relatability. Thankfully, in Claudette Josephine Walker, the writers of See You Yesterday gave me a flawed character I could believe in.
See You Yesterday is a science-fiction movie that was released earlier this year, 2019. In some ways, it was classically allegiant to the genre, what with being a movie about time travel and all—but in other ways, it was not. The theme of the movie was Blackness, with a focus on the unjustified murders of Black folk by American police. That’s right, the enemy isn’t aliens this time, ha! One of the main characters was Caribbean (Guyanese to be precise), the setting was the Bronx, and there was a random Jamaican guy used as comic relief. It was very much a Netflix movie in that there seemed to be a focus on aesthetic appeal (the graphics in See You Yesterday were very pretty, and the actors beautiful), as well as an intricate, convoluted plot, and an evident lack of Hollywood, Disney/Marvel-grade resources.
Despite that last point, I found See You Yesterday enjoyable, so emotionally engaging that I had to pause a few times to gather myself, and compelling enough that I have watched it twice and would gladly re-watch it again.
Although there’s probably quite a bit to be said about the political relevance of the movie, that is not what I want to talk about, because that’s not what made the greatest impression on me. And I’m not here to rate or review the movie either. I’m here to rant about how much I love the main character, CJ Walker, and explain why she is now my favorite movie character.
While CJ’s flaws are central to why I like her, the truth is that if she were not a holistic, sufficiently complex character, the flaws that I love so much would only be reasons to hate her. Character complexity is already difficult to incorporate into a coherent story, but to do so sufficiently in the space of a single movie? Remarkable. What an exciting bundle of contradictions CJ was, and this made her different from, and more appealing to me than all the most credible teenage characters I have ever watched in teen-centered motion pictures, including Sex Education and The Secret Life of the American Teenager.
The most obvious thing about CJ is that she is smart. I mean, if you’re sixteen years old and you can build a portable time machine, your intelligence should go without saying. Nevertheless, it was said—by her science teacher, near the beginning of the film. Aside that, she is such a quick and natural problem solver, able to allow her intelligence to persevere through emotions of frustration, anger, grief and sadness, and is never hampered by a situation that might seem to another either immensely grave or totally hopeless.
Other obvious things about CJ are her optimism, ambition and pride in herself and the people she loves. (“Yeah, that’s my brother, what now, punk?!” is one of my favorite CJ lines!) If I had started off with a description of CJ’s flaws, I imagine one would be hard pressed to believe a girl like that could be naturally good-natured. But throughout the movie, she has this unshakeable faith in the good that is to come—whether it’s her and her best friend Sebastian getting scholarships to any schools of their choice, her brother turning his life around, or her own ability to save anyone from the forces of chance and racist America if she really puts her mind to it. Her excitement in reaction to a successful experiment is unmatched! (“June 28th!”)
But just as soon as you recognize CJ’s virtues (or even sooner), you see her flaws. Particularly her hotheadedness, stupidity, and astonishing unawareness of self—in that order of prominence. CJ is an impulsive character who acts often without thinking too much first. Say one wrong sentence to her, and she’s ready to beat you up. She’ll have armed policemen in her face, and she’ll still clapback with unbridled sass. In all the chaos her temper causes, how does she defend herself? Thus: “I’m a little tired of people telling me how I should act.” Funnily enough, CJ’s older brother, Calvin, is almost as bad. While his anger is justified, his composure in front of policemen is nearly nonexistent. The fact that Calvin and CJ are almost as stubborn as each other has its terrible consequences—but it makes me love them all the more, because it’s all so real and so very me. As pop culture Twitter might put it, “I feel seen.”
Speaking of consequences, one would think CJ had the presence of mind to recognize that some things happen because she has acted rashly, rather than viewing them all as mutually exclusive occurrences. Throw a slushy at your ex and bad things happen. How does CJ react? By throwing another slushy at her ex. Something worse happens, and not once does it seem to occur to CJ that it’s her fault. Once in the movie, CJ seriously says, without a hint of self-recognized irony, “Why are you so serious, Sebastian? Lighten up for once?” This coming from the girl who apparently wants to uppercut everyone in sight. How on earth is such a smart person so stupid and self-unaware? Simply because she is. As intelligent as she is, she’s still a sixteen-year-old hothead, and it shows. My God, it shows. At sixteen, I was vaguely smart—not quite a time machine-building genius—but quite as bad with balancing my intelligence with emotional control! CJ represents the perfect dichotomy of (my own) adolescence.
And yet another thing that makes CJ a fantastically appealing character is how her flaws intertwine with her virtues. CJ is a lover. She’s a relentless lover, and she wouldn’t be so without her pigheadedness. Besides that, she’s a selfish lover. She would go to the moon and back for someone she loves, and if there are consequences for people she doesn’t love, well, that’s none of her business, is it? (“Who cares about stupid ass Jared?” –CJ) In a similar way as with her brother Calvin, CJ’s reckless form of loving makes her as much of a hero as not. It’s only a kind of recklessness—outside the character of Jesus Christ, maybe—that would make you sacrifice yourself without thinking too much, to save people you believe to be worth saving. For me, CJ and Calvin Walker represent the height of this recklessness. (A bonus is how much of a switch-up either character can make, snapping right from ready-to-punch-someone-in-the-face, to looking like the model kid. Seeing how adorably CJ behaves to Sebastian’s grandmother kills me every time.)
A character is not an isolated being, and I think how the people in their lives see them is almost as important as the way the audience perceives them. Regarding CJ’s community, what I appreciate the most about CJ is that her flaws are obvious. They’re not secret blemishes that she only lets out in the privacy of her bedroom. CJ’s mother can say to her, quite plainly, “I never met anyone as stubborn as your daddy till I met you.” Calvin can say to CJ’s face that Sebastian is a much better friend than CJ. The fact that the people in her life can see her striking hamartia and continue to love her—well, that’s one of the most credible types of relationship I could hope to see in any work of fiction.
It’s funny that the reason I watched this movie at all was that my best friend recommended it to me a day or two after it came out, mainly because the main character reminded him of me. So I watched the movie, and at first I didn’t see it at all—possibly because I was so engrossed in the movie—and then after a bit of reflection and tears when the movie was done, I did!
There are many things to love (and criticize, I admit) about See You Yesterday, but my absolute favorite thing about it is Claudette Josephine Walker. I love her for how un-sanitized and classically unlovable she is as a main character. If CJ is overthrown as my favorite movie character anytime soon, I will be genuinely surprised!