American political discourse is plagued by claims the country is now a “post-racial” society, despite being built on and still actively guided by white supremacy. So it’s no wonder that Black filmmakers like Jordan Peele and Boots Riley have been drawn to tales entrenched in gaslighting and conspiracy. Two of their films, Peele’s Get Out and Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, have found a spiritual companion in They Cloned Tyrone, the directorial debut of Creed II screenwriter Juel Taylor.
Taylor’s film, however, exists entirely within its own strange, alluring dystopia. It’s subtle, and not so different from our own world – minus a lining of perpetual fog and the fact everyone’s dressed like they’re in a Seventies Blaxploitation flick. Fontaine (John Boyega) is a small-time drug dealer, increasingly exasperated by his debtors’ inability to pay up on time. After a particularly fraught showdown with the self-titled 1995 Players Ball Pimp of the Year, Slick Charles (Jamie Foxx), Fontaine is shot and killed by an unseen assailant – only to wake up back in his bed, the world as it ever was.
Fontaine’s bank account is still empty. His mother is still nothing but a voice behind a closed door, turned into a living ghost after the death of her youngest son. The homeless man outside the convenience store still imparts vague warnings that it’s “in the water”. Whatever “it” is. Fontaine joins forces with Slick Charles and Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris), a sex worker who keeps threatening to retire just like every young dreamer vows to leave their hometown, and together they try to solve the conspiracy at hand. Some of it is self-explanatory – the word “cloned” is in the title, after all – but it also switches gears frequently enough that there isn’t much time to ponder what feels familiar and what feels new.
Taylor, co-writing here with Tony Rettenmaier, has a razor-sharp sense of humour that feels relaxed and even occasionally goofy in its execution. Despite the film’s vintage aesthetics, and Diana Ross crooning “Love Hangover” on its score, the characters here use modern (or, more precisely, millennial) lingo. There are shout-outs to SpongeBob SquarePants, Dexter’s Laboratory, bitcoin, and Nancy Drew. When Yo-Yo first faces the reality of what’s happening in her town, she brands it some “sex dungeon, mint choc chip bukkake s***”. A pair of white goons, strolling through an establishing shot, enthuse about their love of boiled, unseasoned chicken.
Parris is clearly having the most fun with the material, and there’s a great sense of physical comedy to the way she whips the tiniest gun imaginable out of her purse like it’s her last defence against both death and insanity. Foxx is the most at ease – in his charm, his stardom, and in his gigantic fur coats. But it’s Boyega who drives home the dual nature of Taylor’s film. They Cloned Tyrone is funny, yes. It’s stylish, certainly. But there’s a real streak of despair here that the actor captures in every earnest, angry scene of Fontaine alone in his helplessness.
This is a story, ultimately, that drives home the idea that solidarity can exist even when there’s no sense of community – and particularly when that community has been systematically dismantled by the powers that be. They Cloned Tyrone reminds us that dystopias like these really aren’t so speculative. It’s our world, pushed one inch further into madness.
Dir: Juel Taylor. Starring: John Boyega, Teyonah Parris, Jamie Foxx, David Alan Grier, Kiefer Sutherland. Cert 15, 119 minutes
‘They Cloned Tyrone’ is streaming on Netflix
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