“A pimp, a prostitute, and a drug dealer walk into a bar. What if we made them the heroes?” Juel Taylor describes the unofficial pitch for his film They Cloned Tyrone. Starring Jamie Foxx, John Boyega, and Teyonah Parris, the story follows three unlikely sleuths who try to get to the bottom of a covert cloning operation targeting Black people in their neighborhood, the Glen. The comedic sci-fi mystery will have you questioning your reality. From mind-control fried chicken to evil clones and people seemingly from the ‘70s talking about blockchain, it makes you work for the answers.
You wouldn’t be able to tell, but Tyrone is Taylor’s directorial debut. He began his career as a screenwriter, alongside Tyrone co-writer and University of Southern California’s graduate film school classmate Tony Rettenmaier. (The two also share credits for Creed II and Space Jam: A New Legacy.) The arrest of Taylor’s friend, back when they were in college, largely inspired Tyrone. After losing a full football scholarship for simply riding in a car with someone with a gun, his friend sunk into deep depression and paranoid thoughts that everyone was out to get him.
GQ caught up with the first-time director on the overwhelmingly positive reception to his modern Blaxploitation film.
GQ: What inspired the exact moment when you thought, I need to make a movie about this?
Juel Taylor: I was like, Man, it’d be cool to do a mystery movie, just in general. And then the next step in the thought process is like, Wouldn’t it be cool if the detectives were the last people on earth you thought should be on the case?
That’s when the joke starts to organically spring itself up. We wanted to make a bootleg Scooby Doo movie. Red tape, bureaucracy, and procedure are the usual impediments of a detective film, but here it’s just real-world stuff—people that you crossed before, and things like that.
What was your earliest memory of the Blaxploitation genre?
I saw some of the more prominent blaxploitation films as a kid. I’m sure there’s some subconscious recall happening in this movie in terms of references to Super Fly and The Mack. But honestly, I didn’t codify it into being blaxploitation until later.
It started with music. I was listening to Mary Jane Girls and I imagined a movie that feels like the way Wave FM, the R&B station on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, made me feel. There’s a coolness to it that I always thought would be very interesting in a mystery setting. I listened to Patrice Rushen, The Gap Band, and SOS Band. If “Just Be Good To Me” was a movie, it’d be this movie. I was like how do I even put that in someone else’s brain?
A lot of the blaxploitation came up from when we got into the weeds of plotting it out as a conspiracy thriller. Once we started to lean into and embrace some of the B-movie aspects, the blaxploitation parallels were too many to ignore. The film is already living in the world of funk. It’s this musical world that’s very organic, funky, and bass-driven. It’s a gumbo that slowly starts to pull other things in.
When thrillers are written by Black people, it’s common to see their Black protagonists running away from the danger. For example, Jordan Peele’s Nope, the title alone alludes to this popularly held notion that Black people are often like, “No, I’m not going to be a part of this freaky white people shit.” But in Tyrone, the characters go towards the danger. Was this a conscious decision that you made or was it just like, “I’m making a mystery and this is what needs to happen?”
When Tony Rettenmaier and I were going through the script, we weren’t consciously trying to eschew the norms when it comes to Black people in these situations. They were going to get on the elevator no matter what because that’s what the plot calls for. But I do think there was a level of just putting myself in that shoe, “What would make me get on an elevator?” from Fontaine. Obviously, there’s a moth-to-flame quality to it with him. Obviously, his mystery is the central mystery in terms of, “Who am I?” That’s the mystery he’s trying to uncover. He’s not really on the trail of this conspiracy as much as he’s on the trail of just his own identity.