Netflix’s They Cloned Tyrone review: a modern Blaxploitation classic

More than anything else, They Cloned Tyrone — Netflix’s new conspiracy theory-minded, sci-fi comedy thriller from director Juel Taylor — wants to make you laugh with its wild story about a secret organization terrorizing an unsuspecting Black neighborhood from the shadows. But the movie also wants you thinking about what it is you’re laughing at, exactly — its absurdity, its jokes, or the hard realities behind the fantastical horror playing out on-screen.

Set almost entirely in an economically depressed but vibrant Black neighborhood somewhere in America, They Cloned Tyrone tells the tale of how dope dealer Fontaine (John Boyega) accidentally discovers an alarming truth about the place he’s called home for his entire life. As a local from the Glen — the small chunk of town where Fontaine pushes his products while trying to edge out competitors like Isaac (J. Alphonse Nicholson) — there’s little about his stomping grounds that he isn’t intimately familiar with. 

Fontaine knows exactly where Isaac’s corner boys are usually posted up, just like he knows that he can always rely on Biddy (Tamberla Perry) and the Glen’s other sex workers to cough up information about where people are for the right price. Fontaine also knows that people like himself and Isaac — men who conduct their business violently and with little consideration for the hardships other people are dealing with — are part of what makes the Glen a dangerous place for kids like Junebug (Trayce Malachi) to grow up in.

But between Fontaine tragically losing his younger brother, financially supporting his shut-in mother, and having few other viable options at his disposal, it makes far more sense from his perspective to make a living selling drugs to cash-strapped pimps like Slick Charles (Jamie Foxx) than trying to work a 9-to-5.

Image: Parrish Lewis / Netflix

Though They Cloned Tyrone’s reality becomes exponentially more heightened and outlandish as the movie unfolds, Boyega brings a subtle depth to his performance as Fontaine that immediately makes his complicated relationship with the Glen feel real.

Foxx’s Slick Charles — a vintage hustler who’s well aware of how helpless he’d be without women like Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris) who’ve worked for him — seems plucked out of time and feels just shy of being a caricature. But when Fontaine comes to shake Slick down for cash, and Boyega gets to play straight man opposite Foxx tapping into all of his charisma while Parris steals the scene with one-liners about crypto and the blockchain, the three characters make a perfect kind of sense in each other’s contexts.

The almost cartoonish goofiness that’s present throughout most of They Cloned Tyrone comes to an abrupt halt early on when Fontaine’s suddenly murdered in cold blood, with both Yo-Yo and Slick Charles witnessing the ordeal go down. But when Fontaine wakes up the next morning and starts going about his day — the very same beats he hit the day before — the movie takes on a disquieting kind of Groundhog Day-like quality that works to illustrate a number of interesting ideas.

On one hand, They Cloned Tyrone’s a story about Fontaine, Yo-Yo, and Slick Charles realizing that someone or something out there is cloning people from the Glen and setting out to learn why. But it’s also a story somewhat in the style of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled or about a Black community reckoning with the ways in which it’s surveilled and how many of the structural challenges it faces are there by design.

Image: Parrish Lewis / Netflix

Because the subject matter that They Cloned Tyrone is talking about — the meaning behind the clones and the way that Fontaine feels existentially stuck in the Glen — is so heavy, the film’s Sorry to Bother You-esque absurdity never exactly feels silly. Instead, the jokes in Taylor and co-writer Tony Rettenmaier’s script feel much more like the sort of humor that stems from having a deep understanding of how pernicious structural racism is and making light of it to keep from being enraged.

As strong as They Cloned Tyrone’s first two-thirds are, its final act feels more than a little slapdash in terms of how it tries to tie up multiple plots with an ambitious set piece that involves almost all of the movie’s players. But between its trio of rock-solid lead performances, inspired musical direction from Philippe Pierre and Stephanie Diaz-Matos, and a clever finale that brings the whole thing home, that bumpiness is part of They Cloned Tyrone’s charm and all the more reason to give it a watch.

They Cloned Tyrone also stars David Alan Grier, Kiefer Sutherland, Eric Robinson Jr., Leon Lamar, and Joshua Mikel. The movie is now streaming on Netflix.

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