Reviews of Films I Haven’t Seen: They Cloned Tyrone

They Cloned Tyrone, a movie now on Netflix directed by Juel Taylor, is a Black sci-fi caper comedy set in a neighborhood that’s at once retro and futuristic. It features a trio of unlikely African American heroes—a pimp, a drug dealer, and a sex worker—as they try to get to the bottom of a shadowy conspiracy involving white scientists who are performing experiments on members of the community.

Fontaine, the drug dealer, played by John Boyega, is killed by Slick, played by Jamie Foxx. Slick is shocked to find Fontaine alive and well the next day. Slick, for his part, has no memory of being killed. Together with Yo-Yo, the sex worker played by Teyonah Parris, Fontaine and Slick follow the trail of the mystery to a drug den, where they discover a hidden high-tech elevator. Hidden underneath the house is a secret lab that’s producing a mysterious white powder, along with clones of people from the neighborhood. It’s some sort of government conspiracy. Hilarity ensues.

The film appears to be riffing on the archetypes of blaxploitation era movies and having a good time playing on, and against type. From the trailer, They Cloned Tyrone looks like a lot of fun, though I am not the demographic the filmmakers had in mind. The movie was made for a Black audience, though you get the sense that white people are invited to experience the film and laugh at the small fraction of jokes they’ll get.

Its humor and hijinks aside, They Cloned Tyrone suggests the yawning gulf that separates Black and white communities. I didn’t understand some of the dialogue in the trailer, for instance, and I don’t think I was supposed to. I flashed on the hilarious “Excuse me, stewardess, I speak jive” scene in Airplane, another comedy that spun jokes out of a disturbing American reality: Black people may opt to speak in a private code because they don’t trust white people, and with good reason. As a Jew who knows a little Yiddish, I can relate. It’s a private language meant to evade the prying ears of a hostile majority.

The key to ruining what otherwise looks like a highly entertaining movie, however, is to ponder the identity of the “they” referred to in the film’s title. “They” are the white people. From this, we can see that the film’s subtext is actually quite serious. While the scenes where our heroic trio discovers the secret lab are funny, the idea of white scientists experimenting on Black bodies is rooted in a horrible history. The notorious Tuskegee Study is but one tragic example.

Going deeper, the plot surrounding the white chemical being added to Black peoples’ food, suggests the scourge of environmental racism. Black neighborhoods are more likely to be polluted than white neighborhoods, reflecting indifference from white governments at best, or deliberate malice at worst.

The white chemical could also be a reference to drugs. As some in the Black community have long noted, external entities push drugs into Black neighborhoods. They don’t make cocaine and heroin in Black areas, but they find their way in from the outside. Who is making it and selling it, and why? It’s a business, of course, but there is some credibility to the idea that powerful forces in American society want the Black population to be impaired and facilitate drug trafficking to accomplish this goal. It’s a complicated picture, for sure, but the idea that a secret government experiment is drugging Black people is not so farfetched. The audience for this movie knows this, and it’s part of the film’s appeal, I think.

Anyway, They Cloned Tyrone looks like a fun romp, with a message. It’s probably worth checking out.