Image credit: Juel Taylor, They Cloned Tyrone, Netflix, 2023

Released on Netflix this past summer, They Cloned Tyrone is a new addition to the platform’s “Black Stories” film collection, a category created in the tumult of June 2020 to “showcase exceptional Black talent, in front and behind the camera.” It is Hollywood screenwriter Juel Taylor’s directorial debut, and follows the exploits of three central Black characters: Fontaine, a drug dealer; Slick Charles, a pimp; and Yo-Yo, a sex worker. Together they uncover a deep state conspiracy targeting their predominantly Black neighborhood, “the Glen.” The evidence? Egregiously manipulative advertisements, underground laboratories, and fried chicken laced with mind control drugs are only their first clues that something is amiss in the Glen.

Some critics have hailed the film as an instant classic, likening it to Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You (2018) and Donald Glover’s Atlanta series (2016–2022) due to its uncanny and surreal approach to depicting Black identity in America. But other critics have objected to the film’s use of Black stereotypes—obviously a potential issue, as even a short plot summary makes plain. 

Tyrone was a natural pick for Netflix, which has been trying to build a Black subscriber base since the 2010s (thanks to predictive algorithms and the advocacy of Black staff members). Original films and series like 13th (2016) and Dear White People (2017) have explored political issues affecting Black Americans through various film genres. Despite the praise Netflix has received for a number of these projects, behind the scenes controversy has raged as executives of color resign and layoffs target staff in their Diversity Equity Inclusion department. Tyrone is simply the latest film meant to signal their dedication to diversity and inclusion.

Prior to directing Tyrone, Juel Taylor had already begun to make a name for himself on the Hollywood “Black stories” scene. He worked with writing partner Tony Rettenmaier on the films Creed II (2018), Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021), and the 2023 releases Shooting Stars (a Peacock original biopic of Lebron James) and Young. Wild. Free (a drama about a wayward Black youth in Los Angeles). It was during Taylor’s time working on Creed II with Penske Media Corporation (PMC) that he and Rettenmaier were able to pitch Tyrone. The stars soon followed.

In a GQ interview discussing his hopes for Tyrone and his film career, Taylor said “In a perfect world, we’ll be able to make more original stuff. The ultimate goal is to make something that somebody has a themed wedding for and for people to wear Halloween costumes of the characters. That’s how I know Tyrone was a success.”

The Glen, loosely inspired by Taylor’s hometown in Tuskegee, is presented as a prototypical Black American neighborhood, semi-dilapidated and abandoned by progress. For viewers who have frequented such neighborhoods common to the American South, it is immediately recognizable, and satisfyingly so as a setting seldom represented in mainstream film and television. For residents—people who are down and out and have been so for centuries—ubiquitous if inconsequential conspiracy theories often penetrate the collective consciousness. Men outside the convenience store where Fontaine buys daily beers and scratch-offs argue about dead celebrity sightings: 2Pac at the dollar store, Michael Jackson at the Piggly Wiggly on MLK (“but he’s Black now!”). Conspiracy theory becomes a source of comfort; personal failures are transformed by the prospect of greater uncontrollable forces.

John Boyega, the British actor of Star Wars fame, gives a brilliant performance as the hardened Fontaine, tortured in his quest for identity. An electric Teyonah Parris (Candyman, WandaVision) and the legendary Jamie Foxx (Django Unchained, Ray) play off each other with ease. Their characters offer no shortage of witty comebacks and push the plot forward when Fontaine gets lost in doubt. This ensemble carries the weight of the film when its script cannot. When the trio uncover a secret breakroom and elevator in a trap house, they find comedic reasons to investigate despite the terrifying prospect of not making it back to the surface. What awaits them? A laboratory filled with cloned community figures—drug dealers, pimps, and religious leaders, for example. Through multiple trips to the underground, they learn the nefarious architects of this cloning operation have turned the Glen into a superficially self-governing community built out of the manufactured consent of its residents. 

In interviews, Juel Taylor has cited films like the Truman Show and They Live as inspirations for the film’s conspiracy arc. Such films display the use of tech and propaganda to construct a false reality that falls apart when investigated by its protagonists. 

The possibility that the U.S. government had politically engineered Black communities to be open air urban prisons for its residents was also a recurrent theme of the “Blaxploitation” genre popular in the early 1970s. Films like Shaft and Superfly typified the genre, featuring dynamic R and B soundtracks and bringing Oscar nominations to Black soul pioneers like Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield. They Cloned Tyrone makes this an explicit point of reference through its anachronistic set design and throwback soundtrack. “The Blaxploitation parallels were too many to ignore,” Taylor has said. Yet references to bitcoin and impromptu renditions of Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down” will leave audiences wondering, “What year is it?” 

These films, in their frequent use of hustler/pimp stereotypes, and their portrayal of Black vigilantism, are evoked with an unstable blend of irony and homage. The reference might also leave audiences wondering just what Juel Taylor wants to say about Black identity in the United States. 

As a genre, Blaxploitation films were often morally ambiguous: though made for and by Black filmmakers and audiences, and sometimes depicting a kind of dead-end domestic colonialism, the films often normalized misogynistic treatment of Black women and uncritical ideals of Black capitalism. They Cloned Tyrone embraces the ambiguity almost ardently, dramatizing the domestic colonization of Black communities even as it shows how everyone living and working in the Glen, no matter how they hustle, works toward the reproduction of their oppression in forms both known and unknown. Music played in the club and hawked on bootleg CDs contain mind control frequencies. Perm cream used in the beauty salons contains a drug that subdues frustrations. The cycle continues.

There is an awkward marriage between the presentation of political and existential questions of Blackness in the United States, and a wish for the film to not take itself too seriously. Black film often walks a vertiginous tightrope between trauma and comedy, wishing to depict oppression and still entertain. Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) is a prime example of striking a balance between these goals through its balance of suspense and subtle humor. By contrast, Juel Taylor seems to waver on these levels as well as the ultimate message of They Cloned Tyrone. 

It is clear that he wanted the story to be funny and relatable yet troubling and unimaginable. The prospect of Black liberation it presents, however, feels neutralized by the facelessness of its superlative villain, and the unknown dimensions of oppressive power within the constructed world. This feeling—that somewhere lurks a greater unknown adversary—can be familiar for Black artists and consumers perplexed by their historic lack of representation in mainstream film. 

In Tyrone’s climax, one character makes the claim “assimilation is better than annihilation.” How do we distinguish between the two when assimilation hinges on conformity to oppressive structures that deny our value beyond the monetary, in the film industry and beyond? Taylor has opened a door, though there are many more to be thrown open if we are to create an environment of equity in front of and behind the camera. Otherwise, as Fontaine’s scratch-off lottery ticket reminds him each day, “YOU LOSE.”

Zenzelé Soa-Clarke is an MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at the New School for Social Research.