In the last book of his long and productive lifetime, “Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy” (1994), the renowned American diplomat George F. Kennan casually suggests that the United States be broken up into 12 separate but constituent republics. Only by doing so might the country, or countries, retain any semblance of self-government. By virtue of their size and constitution, he says, large polities naturally gravitate toward bureaucratization, cultural homogeneity and an oppressive centralization. So far distended, democracy becomes impossible.
This point is approached from a slightly different angle in a brilliant new Netflix original movie by Juel Taylor and Tony Rettenmaier, “They Cloned Tyrone,” released on July 21. Starring Jamie Foxx, John Boyega and Teyonah Parris, the film begins as a social realist day-in-the-life of a violent, inner-city drug dealer, Fontaine. After running over a rival who was encroaching upon his turf, he is shot and killed in revenge a few hours later. Though we watch him perish, he still wakes up again the following day — a cloned version, it turns out, of the same recurring Groundhog Day gangster, the product of a malevolent U.S. government experiment to control Black people.
Fontaine is part of a massive government conspiracy working to clone Black people in underground bunkers before releasing them as drug dealers and pimps back into the community above. By constantly harassing average citizens, the clones allow the (white) scientists and social engineers to distract people from their real mission: experimenting on Black people by lacing their fried chicken, grape drink, club music and hair straighteners with social sedatives, a kind of modern-day soma from Uncle Sam.
As one preacher dispensing purple drink sings to his flock, while high on his own supply: “His eyes! Are everywhere. Keeping watch over the wicked and good. And do you know what he wants most out of each and every one of you? Obedience! ’Cause it don’t matter how bad your life is! It don’t matter that you’re about to get evicted. It don’t matter if your grandson Jamal was gunned down in a drive-by shooting right next to the Dairy Queen!” Rapturous approval follows from all the congregants in their Sunday best. “They give Jim Jones a run for his money,” says Yo-Yo (Parris) the sex worker, one of the film’s three protagonists.
Why do the evil scientists do it? The film’s chief white antagonist, a perfectly cast Kiefer Sutherland, explains: “America was an experiment. A half-baked idea cooked up by aristocratic ideologues living in mansions built by slaves. And when they checked out, they left us with the bill. A country constantly at war with itself. No common ground, no dialogue, no peace. If we’re all on the same page, and not ripping each other’s heads off, then all of this has a chance to work,” referring to the nefarious experiment. “And that’s what we strive for. Keeping these United States united.”
Delightfully absurdist, Taylor and Rettenmaier make a subtle but damning point: Our experiment in democracy, or republicanism at least, has always relied on a violent dose of coercion. In that, however, we’re far from alone. Large countries are often the laboratories of unfreedom.
In Australia, for example, Indigenous children of the “Stolen Generation” were kidnapped from their families to be raised in white families in the early 20th century. In Canada, the “Sixties Scoop” saw 20,000 Indigenous children “scooped” out of their homes for similar purposes. In China, over 1 million Uyghurs are thought to be languishing in reeducation camps as we speak. In India, millions from tribal minorities are held in debt bondage. The list, depressingly, goes on.
In one of the film’s strongest scenes, we meet the chief geneticist behind the whole government experiment: Lo and behold, it’s a Black man, and not just any Black man. It’s Fontaine himself, the drug dealer and chief protagonist of the film. Or rather, a much older version of himself — his clone’s original, to be precise. His inventor.
Why is a Black geneticist cloning his own people for the Man? For social peace, he says. As a child, his little brother was shot and killed by police for stealing a piece of candy. Since then, he has spent decades working for the government to devise a new American creature, one whose unique genetic makeup will close the gap between Black ghetto and white suburb, the barrio and Chinatown, as he puts it.
“It’s not enough to think the same,” the white-coated geneticist tells the younger version of himself. “We have to be the same.”
“I think n—– might notice if they wake up one morning with blond hair and blue eyes,” replies Fontaine. “This won’t happen overnight,” says the scientist. “It’ll happen over generations. Assimilation is better than annihilation.” Although — spoiler alert! — Tyrone manages to kill the geneticist before the normcore American clone can be released into the wild, the question remains. What, if anything, can divert us from the Long March of assimilation? As the great John Freely once quipped: “America is a factory for making Americans.”
“They Cloned Tyrone” is Taylor’s directorial debut, and a welcome addition to a series of hard-hitting films by Black directors such as “Get Out” (Jordan Peele) and “Sorry to Bother You” (Boots Riley) that have revitalized American satire in recent years.
While some commentators online are calling it a “woke” masterpiece, Taylor’s film augurs a different kind of cultural consciousness: one that isn’t afraid to ruffle a few feathers without taking itself too seriously. By both celebrating and mocking many of the trademarks of Black pop culture — from fried chicken, scratch-offs and afternoon 40s to barbershop theatrics and charismatic Gospel preachers — “They Cloned Tyrone” is refreshing proof that at least some of us can have our cake and eat it too.
While many have also noted the film’s Blaxploitation bona fides, they miss a far greater accomplishment: its honorary place among the great American existential comedies. “The plot is just ‘Truman Show’ and ‘They Live’ smashed together,” Taylor told The New York Times, the latter in reference to John Carpenter’s left-wing masterpiece of 1988, with “a little ‘Matrix’ and a little ‘Manchurian Candidate’” thrown in for good measure, too. It also speaks to “Being There” (1979) and “Groundhog Day” (1993), films that transformed the way we see both the American project and the human condition.
In the former, a towering classic of American satire, an impeccably dressed and mild-mannered but mentally impaired, middle-aged, WASPish-looking white man (Peter Sellers) is mistaken for a sage by the Washington elite because of his extreme simplicity.
“There’s something about you,” remarks an influential tycoon. “You don’t play games with words to protect yourself.” Illiterate and addicted to daytime TV, he is soon catapulted to the position of presidential adviser thanks to his ability to speak in short, TV-soundbite sentences that can be either nonsensical or profound, depending on the listener’s cultural inclination.
As the elderly Black woman who raised him says when she sees him on television: “I raised that boy since he was the size of a pissant. Never learned to read and write. No, sir, no brains at all. Stuffed with rice pudding between the ears. Shortchanged by the Lord and dumb as a jackass. All you gotta be is white in America to get whatever you want.”
If “Being There” shows how an illiterate gardener can guide a nation, “They Cloned Tyrone” shows how a pimp, a prostitute and a drug dealer can save a community. For much of the film, it’s Yo-Yo who takes the initiative. The uncloned original of the three, she’s the only protagonist not genetically programmed to practice her trade (Jamie Foxx, the pimp, is also a clone). Obsessed with Nancy Drew, she grew up wanting to be a reporter or an explorer. “But I’m here,” she laments, “right up the street from all the same shit I wanted to get away from. Stuck in the same trap as you. I’m scared, too. But we gotta do something.”
If Yo-Yo has no issue in reclaiming her sense of agency, Fontaine is paralyzed by the knowledge that he’s merely a lab-grown gangster. “I’m done,” he tells Yo-Yo after a terrifying encounter with Sutherland’s character. “We need to leave this shit alone.”
“This shit is bigger than you. It’s bigger than me,” she implores him.
“Who gives a fuck,” he fires back. “This ain’t no fucking community. This place a bunch of broke-ass n—– with nowhere else to go.”
“There are some good people here,” she replies.
“Who? The jays? The gangbangers? The n—– that pay you to suck their dick? Ain’t no good here. It’s ’cause of me. It’s ’cause of who I am. So I’ma go right back to doing me.”
This, of course, is a typical third stage of the hero’s journey, “the refusal of the call.” But like “Blade Runner” (1982) and “RoboCop” (1987), even Fontaine the clone cannot suppress his inner human core. In a bittersweet touch throughout the film, he will make his mother a sandwich, only to be rebuffed by her from within her bedroom. “I’m all right, baby,” replies the voice from behind the door. “Josephine had a fish fry at the community center, and I’m still full.” It’s central to his daily routine, along with going to the liquor store for blunts, a 40-ounce beer and a scratch-off (“You lose!” it always reads). His filial efforts may be faint, but they’re real.
Now reeling from the discovery that he’s merely a clone created by evil scientists to cause chaos, he pleads for his mother to open up for once. “I just need to see you,” he says, on the verge of tears. “Can you open the door, please?” When there’s no response, he kicks in the door. Inside is an empty room with a lone desk, on top of which sits a small, automated tape player. “I really need you right now, Momma,” he says to the machine with a mix of anger and despair. “I’m all right, baby,” it responds. “Josephine had a fish fry at the community center, and I’m still full.” He picks it up and smashes it. The revolt of the clones has begun.
In his latest tome, “Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury” (2022), journalist Evan Osnos diagnoses the polarization of the U.S. that led to both Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 elections and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. In one of his most astute observations, he rues the “nationalization of politics and political life.” Before 1968, according to research by political scientist Daniel J. Hopkins, people identified more with their state identity than their national identity. Since then, however, national identity — and all our national pathologies — have ruled supreme. “Television, and eventually social media, allowed people to dissociate from their physical communities,” Osnos says. “They were powerful tools of self-segregation.”
Once-local issues now become explosive national controversies. Why, for example, should a farmer in South Dakota care about a drag queen library reading in San Francisco? It’s a phenomenon connected to what Janan Ganesh calls the “vibes theory of politics”: First we pick a political tribe, then we adopt its stances. “Why,” writes Ganesh, “should someone who is pro-net zero also be pro-European Convention on Human Rights, well disposed to Meghan Markle and squeamish about Dave Chappelle’s standup gigs? A clever progressive could find a philosophic thread that links those positions. But an honest one would admit to being carried along in the herd.”
Transferred to the American scene, the potential for danger here is doubled. On the one hand, say films like “They Cloned Tyrone,” it’s not just structural inequalities or social pathologies that can plague a society. Deep at the heart of the American project lurks a burning desire to culturally assimilate everything into the (latest) American dream. On the other hand, as the Aryan-Warholian propaganda in the film’s underground government research facility shows, it’s not a dream to which everyone can, or even should, aspire.
Ta-Nehisi Coates writes beautifully about this in “Between the World and Me” (2015): “The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.”
Speaking of Black bodies, it’s no coincidence that Taylor grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, home of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study (1932-72), in which 600 Black sharecroppers in Macon County, Alabama, were used to test the effects of untreated syphilis. The study was organized by the United States Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so it’s no wonder many Black folk were hesitant to take a COVID-19 vaccine 50 years later. Indeed, one of Taylor’s greatest achievements in “They Cloned Tyrone” is his ability to both acknowledge and poke fun at the paranoia that peppers much of Black conspiratorial thought.
“Just ’cause I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after me,” he says with a wink.
At the beginning of “Being There,” the chief protagonist steps outside the town house he spent his whole sequestered life in and finds himself in the heart of a D.C. ghetto. Though he was born in the same house 50 years earlier, a lot has changed since the 1930s, the scene screams. As the well-dressed but simple-minded gardener walks across a blasted landscape of litter, abandoned cars and men warming themselves over sidewalk fires, a sentence is spray-painted across a wall in the background. “America ain’t shit because the white man got a god complex.”
If nothing else, this complex is on full and hilarious display in “They Cloned Tyrone.” As if we’ve donned the special glasses that reveal the evil aliens in “They Live,” we begin to see this complex all around us, in Iraq and Afghanistan, Haiti and the Philippines, from the Mekong Delta to the moon. Throughout “They Cloned Tyrone,” however, a small part of me was tempted to say: Don’t give these crackers too much credit. We give ourselves enough as it is. As Cynthia Ozick reminds us: “Self-blame can be the highest form of self-congratulation.”
Become a member today to receive access to all our paywalled essays and the best of New Lines delivered to your inbox through our newsletters.