Juel Taylor has set an impossibly high bar for his feature-length directorial debut, the genre-bending Netflix film They Cloned Tyrone. It’s not often one can say that a film combines the best of blaxploitation with the satirical insight of Robert Townsend and the social consciousness of Jordan Peele, Boots Riley, and Donald Glover, but that’s what Taylor has done with this hilarious look at an oddball threesome who uncover a vast government conspiracy led by, who else, The Man.
The fictional neighborhood known as The Glen could’ve been ripped right out of Menace II Society, Friday, or many other films from the ’90s that sought to capture what Black life was like in the inner city. It’s here that we meet Fontaine (John Boyega), a no-nonsense drug dealer whose life is a common routine of hustling, lifting weights, buying liquor at the corner market, and jackin’ up anybody who gets in his way. That is until he pisses off the wrong guy and gets murdered, shot dead in the street, only to reawaken the next day completely unaware of what happened. He goes about his typical day, until those who actually saw him get shot, the ridiculously-pompadoured pimp Slick Charles (Jamie Foxx) and his most loyal prostitute Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris), freak out at his return.
One of the many joys of They Cloned Tyrone is that it’s never just one thing. While starting out a bit dark and grim, it isn’t long before mystery sets in and it steers into sci-fi territory, while also poking fun at the tools used to hold Black people down from reaching their full potential. The first time you see a commercial of Black people dancing wildly over a bucket of fried chicken, you’re already in full-blown blaxploitation mode. Liquor, hair products, and hip-hop music are also deployed to keep the people of The Glen vulnerable and stuck in this place where nothing changes and nobody ever leaves.
In the midst of all this, They Cloned Tyrone keeps you off-balance with its humor. Slick Rick, Yo-Yo, and Fontaine are such unique, wonderful characters that they are a blast to watch together. Neither Rick or Yo-Yo can ever shut up, with him dropping movie references and her pretending to be the next Nancy Drew, which comes in handy when they launch their offbeat investigation. I can’t stress just how much fun Slick Rick and Yo-Yo are together, highlighted by a scene on an elevator when they break into an impromptu rendition of Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down”.
Fontaine is a bruiser, and a mopey one at that, but we come to see the tragic circumstances that have led him to be who he is. While the film often threatens to get too bizarre, Boyega’s performance as Fontaine is what keeps it steady and somewhat grounded. Fontaine represents every Black man who has let tragedy drag him down to becoming someone he never was meant to be. In a place as hopeless as The Glen, it’s easier to just go with the flow and get through the day.
Meanwhile, white people stroll around like they own the place, which they kinda do. The jokes at their expense pinpoint how bland their culture really is, which is why they appropriate it from others. In one great moment that one could easily miss, a pair of white-suited scientists discuss how flavorful boiled chicken with no seasoning really is. The only thing that’s missing is a joke about raisins in the potato salad.
Taylor, who also co-wrote the screenplay, isn’t afraid to push this already-crazy story to the edge, effectively introducing horror elements, gun battles, and a surprising twist at the conclusion. While at just over two hours there could have been some trimming down, I wouldn’t want it if it meant reducing the amount of time we get to spend with Fontaine, Slick Charles, and Yo-Yo. This makeshift band of urban gumshoes help make They Cloned Tyrone the must-see Netflix movie of the summer. Taylor’s future is a bright one, and hopefully we won’t have to wait long to see what comes next.
They Cloned Tyrone is in select theaters now, and streams on Netflix beginning July 21st.