‘They Cloned Tyrone’: A dark comedy where the conspiracy theories are true

Written by on July 20, 2023

(L-R) Jamie Foxx as Slick Charles, Teyonah Parris as Yo-Yo and John Boyega as Fontaine in “They Cloned Tyrone.” (Parrish Lewis/Netflix)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

“A drug dealer, a pimp and a ho walk into a bar.” What sounds like the butt of a joke becomes the premise for a revolution in director Juel Taylor’s sci-fi/horror feature, “They Cloned Tyrone,” which drops Friday on Netflix.

Starring John Boyega as the drug dealer Fontaine, Jamie Foxx as the pimp Slick Charles and Teyonah Parris as a sex worker and aspiring investigative reporter Yo-Yo, “They Cloned Tyrone” uses Blaxploitation imagery (and professions!) to take back the narrative of a community.

When Fontaine, Slick Charles and Yo-Yo discover something strange in the neighborhood, they start investigating and stumble upon some shocking revelations. In this not-so-fictional hood called the Glen, a powerful entity has decided that low-income Black people are the perfect specimen for experimentation, and the so-called dregs of society — drug dealers and pimps, for two — are ripe for cloning. 

It’s not enough that the forced poverty and manufactured violence in these neighborhoods take out drug dealers and pimps daily; the powers-that-be see to it that the dead/murdered are immediately replaced with a clone containing all of their memories and especially all of their toxic, socially programmed behaviors. All of this ensures that the game is the game, and the game don’t change.

If that weren’t enough, ‘Taine, Charles and Yo-Yo discover that these same powerful wizards behind the curtain have infiltrated every aspect of their lives. The clone-pastor at church preaches “obedience” and calmness in the face of Black congregants being unable to pay their bills and police murdering their children. The congregation, drunk on contaminated communion grape juice, eagerly comply, as they praise dance and shout to an organ rendition of “Back That Azz Up.” 

The music they listen to (with a white DJ manning the turntables) also has subliminal messages that control their minds and their behavior. The chemical relaxers women put into their hair also make them more complacent in the face of injustice. The new “hot and spicy chicken” recipe at the Popeyes stand-in makes them laugh and become more amiable. And all day, through radio and TV commercials, the residents of the Glen are bombarded with messages encouraging them to eat the chicken and relax their hair. “Straighter is greater!” the creamy crack tagline exclaims. 

(L to R) Teyonah Parris as Yo-Yo, Jamie Foxx as Slick Charles and John Boyega as Fontaine in “They Cloned Tyrone.” (Parrish Lewis/Netflix)

The metaphors couldn’t be more literal.

In 2023, we know that the Food and Drug Administration has allowed thousands of unregulated chemicals to be added to our food for decades. We’ve long since known that majority-white music executives have made billions of dollars from Black artists glorifying and encouraging violence against other Black people and the degradation and disposal of Black women. The National Institutes of Health reported just last year that chemical hair straighteners are associated with a higher risk of uterine cancer.

We know that the U.S. government experimented on Black men, withholding treatment for syphilis and leaving them to die. We know that the so-called “father of gynecology” experimented on enslaved Black women with no anesthesia. We know that scientists stole Henrietta Lacks’ cells and used them without permission to create the foundation for modern medicine that enriches pharmaceutical companies and victimizes Black patients through medical racism. 

We know that the CIA was complicit in allowing crack cocaine to infiltrate Black neighborhoods in the ’80s. Black people being rightfully wary of the government that sanctioned our slavery for centuries is nothing new. 

And while the Black church in America has historically served as the organizing ground for civil rights activism, we know that Bible passages have often been misused to promote complacency in congregants in the face of systemic injustices ranging from police brutality and ethnic cleansing in Palestine to misogyny and queerphobia.

While one murdered drug dealer can’t (yet) be immediately replaced by an exact replica with his same memories in our reality, another will certainly pop up in his place, with his same socialized behaviors, patterns and routines. 

There’s always been a Fontaine, drowning his grief in a 40 and a pack of cigarillos first thing every morning before buying a scratch-off lottery ticket (and always losing) and hitting the block to check on his corners. There’s always been a Slick Charles, exploiting the women in his community for his own gain and sense of power in a disempowering society. There’s always been a Yo-Yo — all of them trapped in their positions with few avenues for escape by a white supremacist, capitalist, ableist, cis-hetero-patriarchy that benefits from their destruction. And there’s always been Black plantation overseers who are complicit in these anti-Black systems and wrongly believe assimilation into white supremacy will save them.

But what if full knowledge of these traps empowered the collective action of the oppressed to overturn and destroy these systems? What if the same tricks of their trade were used as weapons, not against each other, but against their common enemy? 

This is the radical thesis of “They Cloned Tyrone,” and it could not have come at a better time in history.

Last week, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) joined the Writers Guild of America (WGA) on strike against the Hollywood studios and streamers that makes billions of dollars off their work as many of their union members can’t even afford Los Angeles rent and groceries. All over the country, unionized workers in industries from health care to travel to entertainment and postal services are striking or preparing to strike to bring about the changes necessary for them to make a living off their exploited labor. 

As SAG president Fran Drescher said last week in her speech declaring the union’s strike, “The jig is up.” People are fed up and looking for answers on how to fight back. “They Cloned Tyrone” has plenty. 

Joining the ranks of the 2023 radical communist TV series “I’m A Virgo” from creator/director Boots Riley and showrunner Tze Chun, “They Cloned Tyrone” is as much a hood manifesto as it is an enthralling dark comedy. Yes, there are systems at work designed to keep us fearful, complacent and hopeless. And yes, through collective action, we can tear down these systems and free ourselves — and each other.

Brooke Obie is an award-winning critic, screenwriter and author of the historical novel “Book of Addis: Cradled Embers.”

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