“They Cloned Tyrone”: On national oppression
Warning: Major spoilers for They Cloned Tyrone They Cloned Tyrone is a peculiar little science fiction movie set in the Glen, a fictional poor Black community existing in the South. It follows the life of the protagonist Fontaine, a drug dealer without any particular flair or personality.
The Glen is rife with poverty, inequality and unfairness. For an individual not well versed in political theory, these problems might seem interpersonal or individualistic. For a Marxist-Leninist, this could only be described as one thing: national oppression.
Now you may ask: is the movie operating from a Marxist-Leninist ideology? I say most likely not. But any film that portrays racism as a social evil rather than an individual problem will usually address some aspects of national oppression. But before we can analyze the movie, we must understand what national oppression is. That means we have to understand the Marxist definition of a nation.
For a Marxist, a nation isn’t simply what’s recognized on the map or by some political body. A nation is determined by scientific and historical characteristics and can exist without having a state or even a particularly strong national consciousness. In Marxism and the National Question, J.V. Stalin defines a nation as a “historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.”
According to Marxist-Leninist theory, advanced by the well-known U.S. communist Harry Haywood, “Geographically, the Negroes are scattered throughout the United States, but almost one-third of their number (five million) are still massed in the Black Belt area… Any serious examination will show that the Negro population of the Black Belt is tied together by myriad internal bonds, by all facets and agencies of modern capitalism, has all the prerequisites for existence as a nation. (Harry Haywood, The Negro Nation Chapter 7).
The Glen itself is a representation of a community within an oppressed nation. Eventually they develop a national consciousness and begin to struggle for liberation. Before they can begin to struggle for change, however, the protagonists need an inciting incident – something that makes them aware of the social evils existing within the Glen.
The protagonists of the film – Fontaine, Yo-Yo, and Slick Charles – are three individuals trapped by the cycle of poverty and violence existing within the Glen.
The inciting incident of the movie is the death of Fontaine. He is shot and killed by a rival drug lord after confronting Slick Charles, a pimp, about the drug money Slick owes him. After dying, his consciousness is uploaded into the body of a clone that looks exactly the same. Fontaine doesn’t even know that his original body was murdered yesterday. When the drug dealer returns to Slick Charles demanding the money, Slick explains to him that he died yesterday. After Slick Charles and Yo-Yo, an aspiring journalist who is a sex worker under Charles’ management, prove to Fontaine that he did in fact die, he begins investigating what happened to his former self.
The three unlikely detectives discover details about a conspiracy happening in the Glen, and their continued investigation leads them to realize a sort of mind control drug is being injected into everyday items in their city.
The three heroes attend the local chicken joint because they believe it holds the clues to their mystery. They discover a white powder that makes people laugh is being injected into the food at the Got Damn Fried Chicken fast food place. A kind of mind numbing chemical is also active in the 2Clean Perm Cream used for straightening hair in the local salons. That same mind-controlling drug is also being used in the church, this time inside the grape juice.
These scenes are the great accomplishment of the movie and Juel Taylor’s greatest success within the entire film. There may not be a secret government organization secreting chemicals into these products in real life, but it’s because they don’t have to. Taylor masterfully manipulates hyperbole and the absurdity of this conspiracy to highlight how these products are a representation for the mechanisms used to contribute to Black impoverishment.
All three of these commodities are examples of the psychological and social tools of oppression used to control Black people and prevent our national consciousness from developing.
The fried chicken represents the effects of obesity and poor health due to the lack of sustainable and healthy food in Black communities. For poor Black workers, who experience more than their fair share exploitation, cooking full meals or affording nutritious ingredients isn’t always a reality. It’s why there remains a disparity in Black health rates, and why things like the COVID-19 pandemic more severely impacted Black communities than white ones.
The hair products serve as a way to dull the senses of Black people, in particular Black women, in the community, to dull their consciousness and control their minds. This is a metaphor for the way national oppression forces Eurocentric beauty standards on Black women and speaks to the higher requirements for beauty and womanhood placed on Black women in general. The catchphrase “straighter is greater” is used in a commercial that takes place during the film about the hair product, straight hair being a metaphor for assimilation into white beauty standards.
The most radical part of the movie is its criticism of the contemporary Black church. The grape juice is just one part of the movie’s satire on modern Black Christianity’s tendency to convince African American communities to accept their oppression. The pastor even tells churchgoers to not worry about possible eviction, rising rent, and bills and just focus and worry about God. They end up discovering the conspiracy has an underground laboratory inside of the church.
All of these locations are ordinary. From the outside, they may seem harmless or mundane. But now that our protagonists are conscious of the conspiracy, and aware that there is an external force working to sabotage and undermine the people of the Glen, they start to become conscious of the dangers that seemed like everyday parts of the Glen before.
This is a wonderful representation of national oppression and national liberation. The United States of America has purposely and meticulously created a political system that is unfair and unjust for Black people. At first, people accept that system as normal; they see it as the way their community has always been. But when circumstances change and the aggression and cruelty of the empire are exposed, some members of the community begin to develop a national consciousness. They start to understand the reasons behind their oppression and the sinister undertones behind the at times seemingly benign or mundane features of the system.
In the movie, Black communities are oppressed and treated like colonized nations so that government officials can find a way to assimilate Black people into being totally white. In real life, Black communities are oppressed so that the ruling class – the monopoly capitalists, politicians, and wealthiest property owners – can extract “super-profits” from the Black community.
Harry Haywood theorized that imperialists don’t just oppress Black people due to hatred and bias, although those do play major roles in the system of oppression that exist. The imperialists in our country do it to super-exploit the African American community, meaning that they can pay African Americans lower wages, use us as a way to perpetuate the drug trade in the U.S., and devote less resources into Black community’s public infrastructure, schooling and livelihoods.
This system gives a massive payout to the 1% of this country, while also acting as an obstacle to unity between the Black and white working class. Due to the stereotypes, bias and terrible conditions foisted upon Black communities, the elites get to pay everyone less and blame the oppressed for the reason why living conditions in this country are awful.
After discovering even more shocking truths about the Glen, including discovering that Slick is also a clone, one of the leaders of the conspiracy confronts the protagonists and reveals the Glen is being used as a scientific experiment. He threatens to murder Yo-Yo, Fontaine and Slick unless they return to their regular lives.
After an initial moment of despair, Fontaine and Slick unite the community to save Yo-Yo, after she is captured and imprisoned by the Institute for trying to expose the conspiracy to the press. Through trickery and clever planning, the Glen community leads a rebellion against the conspiracy with their community members.
The characters in They Cloned Tyrone don’t just accept defeat. They analyze their conditions and develop a plan to defeat their oppressors. Unlike They Cloned Tyrone, a single individual rebellion won’t defeat our oppressors. The monopoly capitalist class, the true rulers of our society, rule the African American Nation in the Black Belt South openly. They actively work to destroy these liberation movements and inhibit the development of the Black Nation, as well as the Chicano Nation, indigenous peoples, and other oppressed nationalities in the U.S.
The most important similarity between the movie and real life, however, is that the oppressed communities can fight back. We can win the struggle against our oppressors. Instead of organizing a quiet conspiracy, we need to build a mass movement that can win victories for the national liberation movement. We need to fight to institute community control of the police across the nation. And we need to fight to overthrow the monopoly-capitalist class for once and for all, so all oppressed communities, fictional or otherwise, can be set free.