Crafting a Blaxploitation-inspired, sci-fi-surrealist comedy is no light endeavor, especially for a first-time director. Such a mixture of seemingly disparate genres under inexperienced hands could easily result in a directionless clutter of a film that bites off far more than it can chew. However, Juel Taylor, most known for his screenwriting credits on projects such as “Space Jam: A New Legacy” and “Creed II,” miraculously synthesized these distinct styles quite effortlessly to form one of this year’s most entertaining, stylish and socially relevant films with his debut feature “They Cloned Tyrone.”
Released July 21 as a Netflix Original, the film follows hardened drug dealer Fontaine (John Boyega) along with aging pimp Slick Charles (Jamie Foxx) and one of his sex workers, Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris) as they unearth a devious conspiracy developing underneath their crime-riddled, economically-downtrodden neighborhood, the Glen. Aimed at securing unfaltering unity within the United States, the government-backed project is reliant on the unjust experimentation on the Glen’s African American population. This discovery prompts the unlikely trio to further uncover the scheme’s mysteries and, hopefully, bring it to a permanent end.
At its core, “They Cloned Tyrone” is a disturbing but optimistic tale of the powerless rising against their elusive oppressors in the name of true liberty attained through free will. The residents of the Glen are shown to experience a perpetual sense of entrapment as they prioritize survival amidst bleak financial situations. As is unfortunately the case in numerous impoverished communities across America, many of these individuals resort to lives of crime, which further worsen the conditions of their surrounding environment. Fontaine sits at the center of this self-destructive cycle, distributing illegal substances that desensitize the Glen’s locals to their poor living conditions. John Boyega’s performance brilliantly captures both the outward sternness and closeted vulnerability of Fontaine, who struggles to exact a sense of authority over his taxing livelihood.
The government assists in maintaining residents’ complacency as well, utilizing commercial goods like fried chicken, perm cream and music CDs as a means of mind control. Though scenes involving these products are often sources of absurdist comedy comparable to the likes of Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” or Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You,” underneath them lies the disturbing truth that the U.S. government actively sustains and employs institutions targeted at oppressing minority groups. The bizarre means through which such domineering control is exerted in the fictional world of “They Cloned Tyrone” cleverly exposes the absurdity of these real-world tactics in a simultaneously amusing and unsettling light.
Despite the bleak undertones of its social commentary, the film remains a relatively upbeat experience that regularly provides moments of charming levity. Foxx and Parris’ vibrantly charismatic portrayals of Slick Charles and Yo-Yo balance out the brooding self-seriousness of Boyega’s character. This clash in personalities combined with the palpable chemistry among the three actors results in a captivating onscreen dynamic that greatly contributes to the film’s entertainment value. The believability of their interactions is especially integral in the first two acts which predominantly consist of scenes following the group as they investigate various locales in their neighborhood to unmask its treacherous secrets.
Furthermore, these sequences allow for fully-realized worldbuilding that makes the Glen seem like a convincing, lived-in setting. With distinct locations ranging from hotels and churches to fast food restaurants and underground laboratories that each host an array of memorable side characters, the world of “They Cloned Tyrone” feels alive in a way that few fictional settings do. As a result, the film’s hopeful finale leaves a satisfying impact as the Glen’s residents, now aware of the government’s nefarious agenda, set aside their ongoing conflicts and unite to fight for their community’s liberation.
In addition to the engrossing performances, meticulous worldbuilding and cleverly inspiring narrative, the film’s technical qualities significantly enhance the viewing experience. The cinematography, for example, makes striking use of film grain and other digitally added imperfections to replicate the appearance of movies of old. This creative decision adds a visual grit indicative of the seedy environment in which Fontaine and company navigate through. A similar contribution comes from the psychedelic funk-infused OST, composed by Pierre Charles and Desmond Murray, which imparts a strangely entrancing, seductive atmosphere. Both aspects, while drawing clear inspiration from vintage stylings, forge a distinct voice that separates the film from the contemporary works surrounding it.
“They Cloned Tyrone” is nothing short of an ambitious marvel. In his freshman feature, Taylor managed to successfully blend science fiction, comedy and mystery into one cohesive, wildly entertaining package, rich with social commentary. Though the film’s proximity to the “Barbenheimer” craze will likely position it in the murky depths of public consciousness, it stands as one of the most unique, well-crafted cinematic works to come out of this summer movie season.