Conspiracy and Conformity in “They Cloned Tyrone”
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Director Juel Taylor’s 2023 debut film They Cloned Tyrone opens in a neglected, predominantly Black fictional neighborhood called the Glen, where baseless conspiracy theories spread like wildfire. Tupac is back, the residents speculate, and so is Michael Jackson, but with darker skin this time around. But little do they know, a much more nefarious conspiracy is taking place right under their feet—literally.
They Cloned Tyrone is an ambitious sci-fi comedic mystery following a hardened young drug dealer named Fontaine (John Boyega) who wakes up each day and follows the same mundane routine—that is, until he gets fatally shot by a rival drug dealer while collecting money from one of his customers, Slick Charles (Jamie Foxx). Impossibly, though, Fontaine wakes up in his bed the next morning and returns to Slick Charles’ door, demanding his money. A bewildered Slick Charles recounts watching Fontaine die the day before, a story confirmed by sex worker Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris). The trio sets out to investigate the puzzling circumstances and are eventually led to a secret underground laboratory, where they unintentionally unearth a malicious plot to manipulate the entire Glen.
As they delve deeper into their findings, they encounter multiple twists that keep viewers on the edge of their seats until the very end. On top of the relentless action, They Cloned Tyrone boasts a thoroughly sharp and humorous storyline, which is supplemented by spot-on costuming and cinematography. Each character’s clothes are a testament to their personalities: Yo-Yo’s bold green lipstick and lively outfit reflect her big dreams outside of sex work, whereas Slick Charles’s flashy mink coat and excessive jewelry reveal his reluctance to leave his failing pimp lifestyle behind. The use of a dim color palette and grainy finish gives the film a gritty, vintage undertone that adds greatly to the movie’s suspenseful mystery.
However, what make They Cloned Tyrone truly remarkable are three fantastically multidimensional performances from Boyega, Foxx, and Parris. They steer away from letting their characters become cliches or stereotypes; instead, they bring a refreshing depth and nuance that breathes life into their roles. Their characters’ personalities shine through their impressive line delivery and body language, as well as their chemistry with each other. The main trio balances out effortlessly, with Yo-Yo’s energetic disposition counteracting Fontaine’s stoic broodiness and Slick Charles acting as comic relief to tone down both.
The film is undeniably funny, but beneath the seemingly bizarre surface lies a much deeper message. As Fontaine, Slick Charles, and Yo-Yo delve deeper into the conspiracy nestled below the streets of the Glen, they discover that scientists are conducting experiments on the unknowing Glen community. They have even gone so far as to create clones of people, implant memories into them, and sprinkle them throughout the Glen. Outraged, the trio rallies the Glen’s residents to stage an attack on the underground laboratory, only to have Fontaine injured and taken to the head scientist, who resembles an older version of Fontaine. The head scientist explains that Fontaine is not real—he is simply a clone made from the scientist’s DNA. This explains why he was able to seemingly reincarnate after being shot earlier in the film—the scientists replaced the dead clone with a new one. Finally, he reveals the true reason behind the secret experiments taking place in the Glen: to turn all the Black people into White people in order to eliminate anti-Black violence.
Fontaine escapes and saves the day by forcing a brainwashed clone to kill the head scientist, but the scientist’s shockingly sinister motive still lingers in the audience’s minds.
Before dying, the head scientist tells Fontaine about his younger brother being wrongfully shot by police and claims that “assimilation is better than annihilation.” In the powerful wake of the recent BLM movement, this quote provokes reflection on the real world. Many Black Americans have felt pressured to conform to the norms of white society in the face of rampant, often systematic anti-Black discrimination. They Cloned Tyrone twists this pressure into the terrifying prospect of forced assimilation.
The scientists want to make Black people and culture more palatable for a White society by hiding behavior-altering stimuli in everyday objects. A powder used in fried chicken makes consumers laugh uncontrollably when eaten. A hair product makes users docile when applied. As a result, the Glen’s Black population has become smiling and compliant, having been shaped to obey white expectations of what a Black person “should” be. None of their behavior is entirely genuine, serving as a metaphor for how many Black people feel compelled to change their true selves in order to fit in socially and advance professionally.
Despite the scientists’ efforts to whitewash the Glen, however, they create some Black clones who are criminals, like Fontaine, to keep the neighborhood impoverished, oppressed, and ignored by authorities. These clones represent how White society wants Black people to change, while still viewing them as dangerous and inferior.
The metaphor isn’t perfect, and the film admittedly has quite a few plot holes. For example, all the clones can be controlled through a single code word—an extremely inefficient and dangerous way to control a brainwashed population. Furthermore, the pacing can be achingly slow at times and confusingly rushed at others. Especially as the movie nears its end, the events seem to speed past, leaving barely any time for viewers to process the underlying meaning.
Nevertheless, They Cloned Tyrone is one of the most brilliant and refreshing films of the summer. Despite the flaws of the overall metaphor, both the message and threat that it aims to convey are strikingly clear. As racial tensions heighten in America’s bitter political climate, They Cloned Tyrone extends a crucial and urgent question to its audience: Will we choose to protect individuality in a world where certain government officials aim to strip society of its diversity? The film is jarringly relevant today and will continue to remain relevant until we achieve true acceptance and equity in our society. Its powerful message, accompanied by an enthralling script and dynamic cast, sets They Cloned Tyrone to become a cult classic.