It was just as well that Cypher was the only public screening I attended at this year’s Tribeca Festival that wasn’t preceded by an introduction from a member of the programming staff. Here’s a film best experienced absolutely cold. Fans of Philly rapper Tierra Whack might be in on the joke perpetrated by her co-conspirators, including director Chris Moukarbel and producer Natalia-Leigh Brown, but for those that haven’t been following along as closely, the film is a pseudo-documentary thriller that constantly morphs and shifts tone. Perhaps inspired by the line in Beyonce’s “Formation” (“y’all haters corny with that Illuminati mess”), Whack and Mourkarbel hint early on at what’s to come before shifting into a more traditional biopic documentary explaining the seemingly out-of-nowhere rise of Tierra Whack at age 15.
A product of Internet culture, Whack was discovered in a video of her rapping in a street corner cypher (a gathering of rappers, beatboxers, and breakdancers) uploaded to YouTube and amplified by WorldStarHipHop. Years later she continues breaking boundaries, scaling up her career to include sophisticated music videos and receiving both awards and public shoutouts from luminaries like Cardi B and Billie Eilish. During the making of what otherwise “might have been” a traditional documentary similar to For Khadija: French Montana, which also screened at Tribeca this year, the seams start coming apart. Whack subsequently falling off a stage at an appearance––a first for her, though not so grand a fashion as Travis Scott at The 02––is the least of it. A random stop-off at Target leads to director Moukarbel getting tagged in photos on a burner Instagram that seems dedicated to the making of the movie and conspiracy theories involving Whack.
What follows achieves a level of near-Blair Witch Project creepiness: conspiracy theories start to develop and gain traction across social media with Whack proposing to take her rightful place on a throne reserved for visionaries. An amateur archeologist eventually goes missing after meeting with Whack to explain her findings, which is just the start of many odd coincidences.
This is, of course, nothing new for director Moukarbel, whose previous work includes films about Banksy, online celebrities, and Lady Gaga. In some passages, Cypher achieves a level of brilliance and psychological terror that becomes difficult to sustain as it winds towards its eventual conclusion. Walking a fine line between a found-footage film, a supernatural thriller, and traditional musical documentary, Cypher could be read as a branded extension of Tierra Whack’s obsessions, introducing the star to a new audience by way of a paranoid psychological thriller. While not quite a visual album like Bruce Springsteen’s film Western Stars, it bares some similarities: if the Boss can be a Jersey boy obsessed with the imagery of old Westerns, then certainly Whack can be a typical Philly teen immersed in hip-hop culture obsessed with world domination.
Ultimately, it’s a shame Tribeca Festival is bound by strict categories. Knowing this film won the Founders Award for Best U.S. Narrative Film proved the mother of all spoilers for a compelling work that’s best experienced knowing absolutely nothing beforehand.
Cypher premiered at Tribeca Festival.