Movies about aliens replacing humans with facsimiles of them, humans replacing biological people with clones, and anything that involves brainwashing have been commentaries on fascism. Something as old as Satyajit Ray’s Hirak Rajar Deshe showed the titular king downplaying education and free speech and then using a literal machine to make the people of his kingdom more subservient. The Stepford Wives applied a similar theory to comment on the relentless attacks that women face while trying to break through the shackles of patriarchy. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and They Live highlighted how helpless humans really are when it comes to preserving our personal rights. And then Jordan Peele entered the ring with Get Out and Us to talk about the panic that Black people feel when their bodies are constantly objectified and commodified for various reasons. They Cloned Tyrone feels like a natural extension of this subgenre, and although it wants to say a lot of things, is it comprehensive? Let’s find out.
Juel Taylor’s They Cloned Tyrone, which he has co-written with Tony Rettenmaier, takes place in a town called Glen. It follows Fontaine, who is a collector of sorts, and he goes around retrieving money from those who owe him. He seems to have a total of two friends, Big Moss and Junebug (who remind him of his deceased little brother), and he lives with his mother, who never seems to leave her bedroom. His archnemesis is Isaac, whom he provokes by ramming his car into one of his henchmen, Crutches. Later that day, when Fontaine goes to a pimp named Slick Charles, he gets killed in a drive-by by Isaac. Yo-Yo, one of the women who is on Slick’s payroll, is the only eyewitness to this crime, while Slick is the one to see the aftermath of this attack. That said, the following day, Fontaine goes about his day just like he did the day before. And that is when it becomes clear that he has been resurrected. So, with the help of Slick and Yo-Yo, Fontaine sets out to uncover what exactly is going on in his town.
The trailers, as well as the title itself, for They Cloned Tyrone, make it pretty clear that people are being cloned. To what end, though? On the surface, Taylor and Rettenmaier’s commentary seems to be an offshoot of the aforementioned movies about cloning and replacing humans with copies. The secret labs, the old man with the riddles, and the cyclical nature of Fontaine’s life hint at the fact that somebody is running an experiment that’ll lead to some kind of subservience. And since it’s an all-Black neighborhood, you are not wrong to assume that racism is involved. But that’s where the writers take a very weird but interesting route. In a way, they are responding to the hyper-awareness around gentrification and capitalism due to its popularity in the media and saying that the oppressors are going to use the items that are synonymous with certain cultures to control us. Therefore, people will be confused about whether they’ve to let go of the things they’ve grown up with or allow those things to consume them and assimilate them into the system. However, this isn’t the weird part! It’s what comes after that.
Without getting into a lot of spoilers, much like Us, They Cloned Tyrone wonders a lot about Black-on-Black violence and how White people use the sense of frustration amongst minorities caused by unemployment, inflation, and daily bigotry to prevent them from becoming a united front. And since that is a very real thing, the film makes sense to me when it’s satirizing or taking big swings to show Black people that they are being manipulated by White people. There’s actually something really sinister about White people acting all vanilla and idiotic while carrying out the most heinous tasks like an employee does at a 9-to-5 job. That said, it’s the final twist that has me scratching my head. I suppose the reveal points to an extreme sense of victim blaming, thereby showing that “getting with the system” is the only way to survive. I suppose Taylor and Tony try to go for a “the oppressed eventually become the oppressors in the era of late-stage capitalism” kind of message, but it simply doesn’t land due to the vagueness of the execution. Until that moment, the movie sails pretty smoothly.
Well, to be honest, They Cloned Tyrone’s pacing is unexpectedly slow. I can’t seem to figure out why. The twists are quite obvious, and there is no real sense of mystery, especially if you have seen a lot of sci-fi movies and shows. Taylor and editor Saira Haider try to explore the personal sides of Fontaine, Slick, and Yo-Yo by letting their scenes breathe. But since it isn’t compelling enough, the time spent on them seems unnecessary. If the presentation of their collective existential crisis had been better, I would’ve loved to watch them have all kinds of panic attacks. However, it’s not. Hence, I wasn’t invested. Now, you can chalk up this bit of criticism to my subjective preferences. What we have to agree on is the look of the film. There’s no doubt that a lot of work has gone into achieving the retro-futuristic neon look (via costumes, gadgets, and cars) and giving the town and undergrounds of Glen a lived-in feeling. There is a lot of dynamic camerawork, too, courtesy of Ken Seng. The film grain and the changeover cues are cute. The final product appears annoyingly hazy and poorly lit, though. There are several moments, especially during the third act, where things get so obscure and dark that I can’t even figure out what’s affecting the characters so much or what they’re feeling. It’s a noble artistic choice, but it’s still a noble artistic choice that has gone wrong.
The only thing in They Cloned Tyrone that I have no qualms about is the acting. John Boyega nails Fontaine’s glum, moody, and emo attitude. The contrast in the way he acts with Trayce Malachi and the way he treats everyone else shows his range. His ability to play different versions of himself should be exploited a little more. This shouldn’t be a one-off. If Shah Rukh Khan can play opposite himself multiple times throughout his career, John Boyega can as well. Jamie Foxx is an obvious highlight. Between this and Day Shift, Foxx seems to be building his own supernatural anti-gentrification trilogy. Despite being as slimy as a hagfish, Foxx constantly oozes charm, and his comic timing is on point. That said, the one who steals the show is Teyonah Parris. Her energy is off the charts. She oscillates between feelings of concern, ambition, and sensuality with such ease. She is a beautiful blend of style and substance. Between Candyman and this, Parris is also on her way to complete her supernatural anti-gentrification trilogy, by the way. As for the rest of the cast, they are all excellent and instantly memorable. Eric Robinson Jr. bringing a mini fan to a gunfight is one for the history books.
In conclusion, They Cloned Tyrone is a decent film. Juel Taylor and Tony Rettenmaier clearly have a lot to say about racism, classism, capitalism, gentrification, and more, which is certainly worth appreciating. But in an attempt to stand out amongst their peers, they trip over their own feet and land with a resounding “thud.” I could’ve excused those shortcomings if the movie had looked competent. However, since they’ve fumbled the bag in that department as well, I have to knock off a few points for that. The cast is in the clear, though, and they need to be applauded for carrying the movie all the way to the end on their shoulders. Despite all my criticisms, I will say that it can make for an enjoyable double feature with The Blackening, as it tackles similar issues and has a very campy, bloody, and fun tone. Please watch They Clone Tyrone for yourself on Netflix, and share with us what you feel about the film.