A pimp, a drug dealer and a sex worker. “They Cloned Tyrone” animates these racial archetypes into the heroic trio who unearth a nefarious deep-state plot to clone and control Black people in the fictional town of Glen.
Genre-bending predecessors that may draw comparison include Boots Riley’s 2018 satirical dark comedy “Sorry to Bother You,” a commentary on race and capitalism, or Jordan Peele’s haunting horror “Get Out,” from 2017, which casts racial terror as a more potent villain than any boogeyman or wallowing ghost.
But “They Cloned Tyrone” does not explicitly address racism. Rather, it presents questions of control and bodily autonomy through rethinking caricatures of Black people, all with a hefty nod to the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s.
Director and co-writer Juel Taylor said part of the movie’s inspiration came from reconnecting with an old friend, who ran into trouble with the law when they were younger.
“Something really bad happened to him that was outside of his control,” Taylor said. “It really took him off the map for years.” Learning of his friend’s struggles with depression nearly a decade later forced Taylor to reconsider how he perceived his friend’s life being upended. He said he began to question the lack of nuance surrounding blame and responsibility.
In Glen, the pimp Slick Charles (Jamie Foxx), the dope dealer Fontaine (John Boyega), and the sex worker Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris) are the undesirables blamed by white outsiders and other Black folk alike, in part, for the crime and unattractiveness of the neighborhood.
“They all have qualities that are perceived as negative by outside lenses,” Taylor said. Still, components of their stereotypes such as a brazen disregard for authority and impulsivity make them the right people to unravel the mystery that begins with Fontaine being shot — and coming back to life much to the disbelief of those who believed he was dead.
“When the circumstance calls for it, they are all clearly smarter than they’re given credit,” Taylor said.
For instance, the trio uncovers various ways that Black people are being controlled. In one scene, the group is eating at a fried chicken restaurant laughing when Slick Charles observes that the usually-somber Fontaine is uncharacteristically jovial. He realizes there’s a sedative-like substance in the food.
Graininess is often used in movies to signal a flashback or memory. The film’s grainy aesthetics, traces of present-day technology, coupled with a funky soundtrack and flamboyant ’70s costuming, especially for Slick Charles and Yo-Yo, all work to mystify the setting.
Taylor said the entangling of past and present was intentional and influenced by his upbringing in the majority-Black Tuskegee, Alabama, where the government, starting in the 1930s, infamously conducted unethical research on Black men with syphilis, choosing to treat some while denying others medicine to see how syphilis would affect them.
“Where I grew up, you’ve got the shopping center that went from a Walmart to a Hobby Lobby to a more bootleg version of a Hobby Lobby,” Taylor said. “It’s charming in a lot of ways, but I think if you’re not from there, you might look at it as dated.”
Paralleling how some Southern Black communities are neglected, Glen was about “making this world that feels like it was lost in time and forgotten about.”
Who is to blame? Who is responsible? Taylor said the movie is not an attempt to make declarative sentences about Black America.
“We’re really going out of our way not to be like, ‘This is what it means about the state of the Black community,” Taylor said. “You’re going to watch it and draw a conclusion that may or may not even be something we intended, but it doesn’t make it any less valid.”