Juel Taylor's feature film debut is a smashing success — They Cloned Tyrone is everything and then some. The bold stylistic choices work at every turn and are never overextended. John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Jamie Foxx (Baby Driver) are giving some of their most exciting performances to date, and Teyonah Parris (If Beale Street Could Talk) has that something special that brings it all together. They Cloned Tyrone is funny, well-paced, and just plain cool, and when you think that's all it is, the script digs even deeper.
In The Glen, life is tough but the folks who live there make due. After losing his brother, Fontaine (Boyega) looks to his mother for companionship but cannot form a connection with her. He returns to drug dealing and collects from local pimp, Slick Charles (Foxx). When Fontaine arrives, Slick Charles is in the midst of an argument with Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris). After he gets his money, Fontaine makes his exit, but Slick Charles and Yo-Yo witness a supernatural event that leads them to believe there is a cloning conspiracy happening right beneath their noses. The unlikely trio forms a team to get to the bottom of what they just saw — a clone of Fontaine. Once they get their evidence, it's a race against time to find who is behind this mystery. With the help of the entire Glen, Fontaine, Yo-Yo, and Slick Charles plan a siege on the laboratory where the cloning is being conducted.
The essential question at the heart of They Cloned Tyrone is, did Black people create their own problems, or did the white man mastermind their despair? In reality, we know the answer is the latter but in the hands of Taylor's script, that concept is explored in a way we seldom see in modern storytelling. By the third act, Fontaine has gotten to the bottom of why The Glen is the subject of such inhumane testing, but does not have the answer to his own existential crisis. He begins to blame himself for being a drug dealer, but neglects to embrace the good person he actually is. With encouragement from Yo-Yo, he realizes he may be a product of his environment, but he is also capable of making his own choices.
The acting in They Cloned Tyrone is extremely stylized. It asks a lot of us, but always backs it up. Though the film takes place in the present day, there is a 70s flair to the entire production. Most people speak in a modern cadence, but Foxx is a jive-talking, players ball-winning pimp straight out of a Blaxploitation film. There are cell phones, but every television set is a box frame. The film stock gives it a gritty feel that transports viewers to an era that Billy D. Williams calls come. That’s not to say the film lives in the past; Taylor brilliantly writes a small-scale sci-fi with huge themes at its center. Except for the evil laboratory and a single club scene, They Cloned Tyrone is not a film full of needless extras. And the CGI employed does not distract; rather, it bends seamlessly with the film. That alone is a minor miracle.
The jokes in They Cloned Tyrone have a high hit rate. It's hard not to laugh at the sight of white guys in afros and lines like, “There ain’t no I in goddamn!” But despite the sense of humor, the overall tone is slightly darker than you might expect. Loss, identity, and Black pride are just a few of the themes Taylor’s script tackles. But what truly sells the emotion of the film is when Fontaine comes face to face with the clones in the film's climax. With just a look, he tells the story of every Black person who has ever doubted themselves in the face of white oppression. Foxx is also the voice of most of the film's funniest lines, but the multi-hyphenate actor can do no wrong in this psychedelic throwback to seminal films of the 1970s.
They Cloned Tyrone has a little something for everyone. Boyega's character is at the heart of the clone conspiracy and the actor's performance in the film's ending is easily some of his best dramatic work to date. Foxx is one of the true Renaissance men in Hollywood. He can sing, be funny, dramatic, but he is simply divine in They Cloned Tyrone. Juel Taylor has a bright future as both a writer and director, and whatever he does next should be one of the most hotly anticipated follow-ups for a young filmmaker. All in all, They Cloned Tyrone is one of the best films of 2023.
They Cloned Tyrone is now playing in select theaters, and begins streaming on Netflix Friday, July 21. The film is 122 minutes long and rated R for pervasive language, violence, some sexual material and drug use.