​'They Cloned Tyrone' Has a Distinct Identity

Directed by Juel Taylor

Starring John Boyega, Jaime Foxx, Teyonah Parris

Photo: Parrish Lewis / Netflix

BY Prabhjot BainsPublished Jul 19, 2023

Juel Taylor's feature directorial debut, They Cloned Tyrone, is all about duplication — on both a stylistic and storytelling level. Beyond its familiar concept centred on a secret government cloning project, Taylor and co-writer Tony Rettenmaier blend the tropes of classic sci-fi and blaxploitation cinema to create a new type of "clone" that retains a wholly distinct identity with a singular, infectious dose of personality, vigour and confidence.

The grainy cinematography evokes a B-movie aesthetic, rendering the seedy inner-city setting of "The Glen" a bustling dark delight. With its warzone-like streets rampant with leather-clad sex workers, gun-toting drug dealers and corner stores selling 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor, the perfect '70s blaxploitation locale is created. Even the film's trio of protagonists wonderfully hearkens back to the era's greatest figures, tapping into Super Fly with its drug dealer hero (John Boyega), The Mack with his pimp sidekick (Jaime Foxx), and Foxy Brown with Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris), a woman focused on justice for her battered community. Yet, despite wearing its influences on its sleeve, the film's historical setting is purposefully left vague, especially when the rundown streets give way to the sleek but eerie laboratories underneath them. 

Though They Cloned Tyrone hints at where the story might go, it never entirely becomes what audiences expect, with its propulsive style packing a surprise at every turn. The film concocts a mystery that is both hysterically bonkers and an unsettling reminder of the clouds that still threaten to darken the sociopolitical fabric of America.

The outrageous plot centres on Fontaine, a drug dealer caught in a daily cycle of violence. When he's not defending his turf, he's making collection rounds in his Impala. His largest debtor is the wonderfully fur-laden pimp Slick Charles, whose most reliable earner, Yo-Yo, has just announced her retirement. After collecting the money, Fontaine finds himself in a shootout that is captured in a mercilessly still, unbroken take. Similar compositions are littered throughout the film, tilting this genre exercise in the direction of more artful fare.

The next day, Fontaine wakes up with no memory of the night before. He begins questioning things when he makes his collection rounds again at Slick Charles's motel room, and only when the three enter a laboratory — hilariously located beneath a trap house — does the reality of their situation kick in.

They Cloned Tyrone is a deft, playful mix of pop culture, comedy and introspective commentary, lacing obvious Black stereotypes like fried chicken, perms and Holy Roller preachers with niche references to Kevin Bacon in Hollow Man and modern cryptocurrency to maximum effect. Moreover, a key facet of Yo-Yo's personality, as well as her hopes and dreams, is her adoration of the Nancy Drew mysteries, which inspires her investigative prowess and ultimately becomes the beating heart of the central trio.

The perfectly timed wisecracks are as funny as they are memorable, given force by their clever, deep-cutting jabs at the nature of American assimilation. The comedy reinforces a brisk pace that keeps the tonal tightrope the film walks from snapping, though some of the dialogue overdoes it. Even when the film transitions from being a lighthearted sci-fi romp to a conspiracy thriller, it does so with a natural touch, weaving biting observations into its increasingly zany plot twists. All of these elements combined are illustrative of, not only the work of a rebellious, fearlessly idiosyncratic filmmaker, but also one that refuses to let his vision be pigeonholed.

John Boyega's Fontaine is a no-nonsense hustler, and he plays him perfectly straight. Innately serious and mortally focused, Boyega injects Fontaine with an immense level of depth, not only allowing audiences to root for him but to see parts of themselves in him as well. Parris's turn as Yo-Yo practically feeds off her flair, with her fabulous outfits and dry wit casting her a cut above the typical blaxploitation femme fatales.

Jaime Foxx, though, is undeniably the film's crown jewel. He embodies Slick Charles by embracing and subverting the archetypes that wonderfully underpin his character. Foxx's suave theatricality never allows Slick to be relegated to the role of comic relief, instead constructing a cinematic pimp for the ages who often steals many of his scenes while never becoming an outright distraction. As a result of these three outstanding performances, the film sits at a perfect equilibrium between comedy and drama, crafting characters that are all too easy to invest in.

They Cloned Tyrone is not only a supremely entertaining genre mashup, but also one that has something potent to say about the dark path America is headed towards. Its sci-fi-meets-blaxploitation concept unearths a truly clever take on America's treatment of Black culture, all underscored by a sublime Motown-inspired soundtrack, featuring hits from Diana Ross and Alicia Myers.

Though it doesn't hit all its marks (especially when the plot-oriented second half writes itself into a few illogical corners), They Cloned Tyrone never relinquishes its equally alluring and off-putting charm.

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