They cloned Tyrone Photo: Netflix

Lucy Nichols enjoys a satirical conspiracy thriller set in a working-class black American community, with themes exploring exploitation and resistance

Juel Taylor’s They Cloned Tyrone should be on everyone’s watchlist. The absurdist sci-fi comedy-cum-mystery stars John Boyega, Jamie Foxx, and Teyonah Parris as a drug dealer, a pimp, and a prostitute respectively. The film follows these three unlikely allies as they uncover a serious government-led conspiracy and are forced to work together to save their local community.

The film was released on Netflix at the end of July and is reminiscent of other pieces of media that deal with issues of race and class as experienced by America’s black populations. See Get Out (Jordan Peele), or I’m A Virgo (Boots Riley). They Cloned Tyrone falls somewhere between the two, with a dash of Stranger Things thrown into the equation. It isn’t perfect and there are elements of the plot that feel very slightly forced, as if Taylor couldn’t quite find a decent way to connect various parts of the action. Yet, this doesn’t take away from how beautiful or entertaining the film is.

The film masterfully combines elements of mystery, science fiction and comedy to create something that is essentially an allegory for the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, hidden behind a satire of (or homage to) 1970s blaxploitation films. It deals with big themes in a subtle and often very funny way, as good satire ought to.

They Cloned Tyrone is conspiratorial, with a secret agency running clandestine experiments on working-class black people, including – as the title suggests – cloning people. The church, hair salon, and fast-food restaurant are presented as tools for social control. A mysterious white powder is snuck into peoples’ food and hair products, specifically food and hair products stereotypically associated with black American culture, like hair relaxer and fried chicken.

The reasoning behind these cruel experiments is a little shaky, and Kiefer Sutherland appears to try and explain the motivations, but this falls slightly flat against the rest of the film. A more critical eye might argue that the ending of the film lets it down slightly, though perhaps this is too harsh. The final scene opens They Cloned Tyrone up to a sequel. This could explain the weakness in the plot, although the film works as a stand-alone.

People against billionaires

They Cloned Tyrone does, however, follow what is today an incredibly popular formula: underdogs and anti-heroes are forced to fight an evil billionaire CEO in order to save themselves, their communities, and the greater good of mankind. They use a loose kind of mass mobilisation to do this. Taylor captures the zeitgeist of contemporary film: in 2023, the antagonists are no longer thieves, pirates, or Nazis. In this film, as with many others, the rich are the enemy. Once again, see I’m A Virgo and Get Out, but also Parasite, Don’t Look Up, Triangle of Sadness or either of the Knives Out mysteries.

On the surface, the characters are merely caricatures, stuck as offensive stereotypes: the brutal drug dealer, slimy pimp, and garish prostitute. We soon see what lies behind these stereotypes, wherein each character has merely turned into the archetype as a result of conditioning by the world around them. ‘Slick’ Charles (Jamie Foxx) is a pimp pulled right out of the 1970s, Fontaine (John Boyega) a drug dealer from the 1990s. The creation of these two specifically makes sense towards the end of the film. Both are redeemed, managing to break free from themselves and the film’s antagonist. Tayonah Parris’ character, Yo-yo, is slightly different: she has been condemned doubly by society and suffers as a result of the super-exploitation felt by women, particularly working-class black women in the deeply unequal USA. Though forced into prostitution, she is the mastermind behind the trio’s victory against a powerful enemy, taking her inspiration from the Nancy Drew comic-book series (America’s answer to Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ series), initially aimed at middle-class white children from the 1950s.

Fontaine (John Boyega), the main character, deals with depression and what a Marxist would probably identify as alienation. In fact, most of the characters struggle with exploitation, alienation, and oppression as a result of their environment. The main characters are perhaps not quite working class, seeing as they have rejected traditional lines of work and are thus rejected by the rest of society too. Whether the director intentionally created a film that lends itself to this kind of Marxist analysis remains unclear, especially considering the conspiratorial nature of the plot.

The setting of They Cloned Tyrone is deliberately vague. We know that it is set in an anonymous working-class black neighbourhood in America, most likely a suburban area of a large city. The name of the city is obscured as a newscaster reads it out in the background of one of the final scenes. It is also unclear when the film is set. Most of the technology is lifted out of the 1980s and 1990s, including many of the cars (most of the characters drive the iconic lowriders). ‘Slick’ Charles’ costume is that of the stereotypical 1970s era pimp, but Fontaine dresses in a more modern fashion. Yo-yo appears to have been lifted out of the noughties, and the characters all use flip-phones. There is a scene in a nightclub that appears to be present-day, and another scene in a church that could be the 1950s, with a preacher that looks like the twin of Frederick Douglas and a church usher potentially modelled on James Brown. The soundtrack is also excellent, drawing on music from a variety of decades. Erykah Badu even rewrote her song ‘Tyrone’ especially for the film.

The film is therefore very impressive visually, with muted dark purple, green and orange tones and a grainy texture throughout. It looks dystopian, while various elements suggest that the film took inspiration from films of the 1970s and 1980s.

Despite a plot that is a bit weak at certain points, They Cloned Tyrone is a very good film. It feels original, as Taylor has taken the story of the underdog and added an awful lot of flair. If you don’t fancy heading to the cinema to watch Barbie or Oppenheimer, watch this far funnier, far more exciting film on Netflix instead.

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