Review: ‘Cypher’ (2023), starring Tierra Whack

June 17, 2023

by Carla Hay

Tierra Whack in “Cypher”

“Cypher” (2023)

Directed by Chris Moukarbel

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2019 to 2021, in various parts of the U.S., the comedy mockumentary film “Cypher” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people, Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Real-life rapper Tierra Whack becomes the target of a conspiracy-theory cult. 

Culture Audience: “Cypher” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Tierra Whack, hip-hop culture and movies that poke fun at how social media plays a role in how celebrities are perceived and how they interact with fans.

“Cypher” is an inconsistent but mildly interesting mockumentary starring real-life rapper Tierra Whack as herself. The movie could have done more with its conspiracy cult storyline, but what’s there is fairly amusing. “Cypher” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival, where became the first mockumentary to win the festival’s Founders Award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature. It’s the top prize at the Tribeca Festival. And this top prize might lead viewers to believe that “Cypher” is a prestigious film. It’s not.

“Cypher” (written and directed by Chris Moukarbel) is nowhere near the level of an Oscar-worthy film. It’s not even the type of movie that will win any MTV Awards. It’s a moderately entertaining mockumentary to watch for people who like or have tolerance for hip-hop culture. Everyone else will be bored or turned off by this hit-and-miss comedy. As far as music-industry mockumentaries go, if 1984’s “This Is Spinal Tap” is the gold standard, then “Cypher” is like imitation bronze. Imitation bronze has a purpose, but just don’t expect it to be gold.

As many music celebrity mockumentaries tend to do, a great deal of “Cypher” shows the artist on tour. The movie’s title is explained by an on-screen caption saying that the definition of “cypher” is “a gathering of rappers freestyling together in a circle.” The beginning of “Cypher” has the obligatory backstory on Tierra Whack (yes, that’s her real name), who was born in 1995. For the purposes of this review, the Tierra Whack character in the movie will be referred to as Tierra. The real-life Tierra Whack will be referred to as Whack.

From an early age, as Tierra says in an “interview” for the movie, she was introduced to hip-hop by her mother. She also started writing poetry while still in elementary school, which led to her being a freestyle battle rapper in her hometown of Philadelphia. At age 15, one of her rap videos went viral, and she became an Internet sensation. (Nyla Naveah has the role of teenage Tierra.) Tierra got a record deal as a direct result of her Internet fame.

Just as in real life, “Cypher” shows that Tierra’s debut album “Whack World” (released in 2018) became a hit, and she became a fan fave of other music celebrities. The movie has snippets of artists such as Rihanna, Cardi B and Billie Eilish praising Tierra Whack. “Cypher” is supposed to take place from 2019 to 2021, but some of the timeline looks off in the movie.

Tierra’s entourage consists mostly of people under the age of 35. They include her co-managers Kenete Sims and Johnny Montina; hair stylist Jamilah Curry; makeup artist Camille Lawrence; and photographer Nick Canonica. A few music producers who are “interviewed” in the film include Warren “Oak” Felder and Jay Melodic. All of them play versions of themselves in “Cypher” and say the usual sycophantic things about Tierra that people would say about celebrities who are paying their salaries.

“Cypher” director Moukarbel can occasionally be heard (but is never seen) on screen talking to the people he’s interviewing for the movie. “This Is Spinal Tap” director Rob Reiner played mockumentary director Marty DiBergi in “This Is Spinal Tap.” Moukarbel does not make his presence in “Cypher” compelling or amusing. In other words, there is no Marty DiBergi-type director character in “Cypher.”

However, film producer Natalia-Leigh Brown portrays herself as a producer of this mockumentary. (In real life, Brown is not a producer of “Cypher.”) The Natalia-Leigh character is intensely driven and, in many ways, seems more in charge of the movie than the director. Viewers will either find her kind of hilarious or really annoying.

“Cypher” wastes some time with repetitive “goofing off on tour” footage from 2019. After a concert in Philadelphia, Tierra falls off the stage and mildly injures herself. She’s mostly embarrassed instead of hurt by anything physical from this tumble. After the concert, she and her entourage are hanging out at a diner when Tierra meets a 58-year-old woman named Tina Johnson Banner (played by Chris Anthony), who claims to be a devoted fan of Tierra.

Tina seems shy and hesitant at first when she approaches Tierra, who invites Tina to sit next to her at the table. This scene cuts back and forth between the conversation that Tina and Tierra are having by themselves and the innocuous conversation that members of Tierra’s entourage are having at a nearby separate table. It isn’t long before Tina starts to get weird and makes Tierra feel uncomfortable.

Tina gives a rambling monologue about sounds influencing people’s thoughts. She says there’s a video that explains everything. At this point, Tierra is done with the conversation and politely but firmly tells Tina that it was nice meeting her, but Tina needs to leave Tierra alone now. Tina is reluctant to leave, but before she does, Tina makes these cryptic comments to Tierra: “Watch the video” and “Don’t let them use you.”

At first, Tierra thinks this was just a harmless encounter with an offbeat fan. But then, Tina sends Tierra a bizarre video about belonging to a group called Warren, which has worked for years to decipher a document called the True Vision Manuscript that they discovered in the early 20th century. The True Vision Manuscript was supposed to be written by a secret society in Europe called Oculus, an offshoot of the Freemasons. Part of the True Vision Manuscript translation says that there’s a “chosen one” who has to pluck an eyebrow hair to gain true powers.

It’s at this point in “Cypher” that viewers will be turned off from or intrigued by finding out more about this mystery. And things get weirder. Tierra finds out that Tina has gone missing. Tina’s young adult daughter Marigold Johnson (played by Bionca Bradley) has been going on social media blaming Tierra for Tina’s disappearance, because Tierra was the last-known person to have seen Tina. Police start to investigate.

Tierra wants to find out the truth too, partly to clear her name, and partly out of curiosity. During this investigation, Tierra and her entourage find videos online or elsewhere, showing that Tierra and her entourage have been filmed with hidden video cameras by an unknown stalker or stalkers. The rest of the movie then becomes a tangled web of solving the mystery of not only Tina’s disappearance but also the translation of the True Vision Manuscript.

It should come as no surprise that Warren is a cult-like group that’s obsessed with the True Vision Manuscript, which is believed to hold the answers to a conspiracy. Tierra says she doesn’t believe in conspiracy theories. Where “Cypher” falters a little bit is that it can’t quite keep the momentum of the mystery going in a consistent way, resulting in a shift in the movie’s tone that’s sometimes awkward. One minute, Tierra is acting like a hip-hop Nancy Drew. The next minute, she’s preoccupied with recording her next album.

Luckily for “Cypher,” Whack is a natural actress who often holds scenes together when other people in the scene are acting a little too fake and corny. It might seem easy to play a version of yourself in a movie, but it’s actually much harder to do this type of performance in a mockumentary. Except for the over-the-top conspiracy cult part of the plot, much of this mockumentary could pass for a real documentary.

The choppy editing and shaky camera work in “Cypher” is intended to make the movie look hastily compiled, as if the information in the movie is too urgent to wait for more polished editing. “Cypher” is not a must-see film for mockumentary enthusiasts. However, it’s worth checking out for viewers who are up for a fairly bizarre ride that mixes music-industry shenanigans with conspiracy-theory investigations.

UPDATE: Hulu will premiere “Cypher” on November 24, 2023, the same date that the movie will premiere in select U.S. cinemas.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Wig’

May 5, 2019

by Carla Hay

Nelson Sullivan in “Wig” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Wig”

Directed by Chris Moukarbel

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on May 4, 2019.

The documentary “Wig” is a joyous and sassy love letter to Wigstock (the annual drag festival in New York City) and New York City’s drag culture. The movie comes 24 years after the 1995 documentary “Wigstock: The Movie,” which chronicled the 1994 Wigstock event. Unlike “Wigstock: The Movie,” which was essentially a concert film, “Wig” takes a deeper dive into the history of Wigstock and its underrated impact on pop culture.

Wigstock was launched in 1984 by Lady Bunny, and its first incarnation ran until 2001. The festival was revived in 2018 by Lady Bunny and Neil Patrick Harris. (Harris and his husband, David Burtka, are two of the producers of “Wig,” which had its world premiere as part of the Tribeca Film Festival’s inaugural Tribeca Celebrates Pride, an entire day of LGBTQ-themed programming. Lady Bunny performed after the film’s premiere.)

A lot has changed since Wigstock went on hiatus in 2001. RuPaul, who was one of Wigstock’s original stars, has become an entertainment mogul, as the host/showrunner of the Emmy-winning drag contest “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the founder of RuPaul’s DragCon event, which currently has annual editions in Los Angeles and New York City. The rise of RuPaul and drag culture is a direct result of LGBTQ culture overall becoming much more visible in the 21st century, with more LGBTQ characters and reality stars on screen; the launch of LGBTQ TV networks, such as Logo and Here; and more LGBTQ celebrities living their lives openly. That visibility and growing public support for LGBTQ rights also had an impact on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to make marriage equality legal for same-sex couples.

In its own unique way, Wigstock has been part of this movement. It’s important to bring up this historical context because “Wig” would have been a very different movie if it had been made in the 1990s. “Wig” director Chris Moukarbel (who directed Lady Gaga’s 2017 Netflix documentary “Gaga: Five Foot Two”) skillfully rises to the challenge of presenting the history of Wigstock in a cohesive, entertaining style that a wide variety of people can relate to and enjoy.

“Wig” includes some prophetic archival footage from the early 1990s showing RuPaul having a bathroom conversation with British filmmaker Fenton Bailey, who asks RuPaul if drag queens will be popular in America. Fast forward decades later, and Bailey’s World of Wonder production company (which he co-founded in 1991 with fellow filmmaker Randy Barbato) is producing the “Drag Race” franchise, drag queen Big Freedia’s self-titled reality series and numerous other film, TV and digital projects. RuPaul is seen frequently throughout the “Wig” movie, including RuPaul’s early club days at New York City’s Pyramid Club (which was a vital part of the city’s drag scene that birthed Wigstock), to directing an impromptu home photo session with fellow drag queen Nelson Sullivan in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, to on-stage appearances at Wigstock throughout the years.

In “Wig,” many of the drag queens comment on the mainstreaming of drag culture, compared to the early years of Wigstock. Although many of the queens appreciate that drag culture has become more accepted and has become a more viable way to make a living, some of the queens express some wistful nostalgia for the days when the community was much smaller and more tight-knit.

Drag queen Linda Simpson says that “’Drag Race’ was groundbreaking,” but the flip side is that drag culture was “more fun” when it was less mainstream. Simpson adds, “Now, drag is all about de-mystifying drag. It takes away from the insider-y feel that we had before.”

Flotilla DeBarge comments, “There are too many people right now who want to be drag queens, but they don’t know what it’s about,” adding that doing drag should be about passion, not money. “Anybody can do drag, but what kind of drag queen do you want to be?” As drag queen Naomi Smalls puts it: “RuPaul paved the way for me, but who the fuck paved the way for Ru? I love that drag is being normalized.”

For many drag queens, validation outside the drag community is the ultimate sign of success. Willam Belli, also known as drag queen Willam (a former “Drag Race” contestant who landed a cameo in the 2018 remake of “A Star Is Born”), hilariously tells a story about surprising a male intruder who had broken into Willam’s home, and the intruder backed away and called her “ma’am.” Willam laughs when remembering how the intruder acknowledged her as a woman: “I passed!”

Some of the Wigstock devotees also talk about their early influences. Charlene Incarnate says that most of her gay role models were closeted dads in her church. Harris said that drag culture appeals to him as a magician. As drag queen Tabboo! says in the film, “Wigstock was revolutionary because it kickstarted the ‘Come out, come out, wherever you are.’”

Lady Bunny adds, “We were putting something special out there in New York because this was the time of AIDS.” The AIDS crisis and its impact on the LGBTQ community is given a respectful amount of acknowledgement in “Wig,” which includes some heartbreaking testimonials of people who have lost friends and loved ones to the deadly disease.

Hate crimes against drag queens and others in the LGBTQ community are also mentioned in “Wig.” Jeremy Extravagance talks about his longtime friendship with singer/drag queen Kevin Aviance, who was the survivor of a vicious beating in 2006, outside of a gay bar in Manhattan. Aviance, who is interviewed and has some of the movie’s best scenes, describes his attack as, “I never felt so much hate in my life from someone I never met.” He says of being a hate-crime survivor: “Drag is my silver lining.”

As one commentator puts it: “Drag is hyper-femininity in response to aggressive masculinity.” If that’s the case, then Wigstock is the ultimate on-stage clapback. The heart of the movie is still about the thrill and the spectacle of performing at Wigstock, with Lady Bunny as the event’s founding mother. Blondie lead singer Debbie Harry, a previous Wigstock performer, says cheekily of Lady Bunny: “The thing that annoys me about Bunny is that she flirts like crazy…and nothing happened [between us].”

If there’s any one person who’s portrayed as a chief villain in “Wig,” it’s Rudy Giuliani, who was mayor of New York City from 1993 to 2001. (He is not interviewed in the movie.) Giuliani’s crackdown of the city’s nightclubs resulted in numerous closures that directly affected gay nightlife and drag culture. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Wigstock went out of business when Giuliani was in office.

The movie culminates with a dazzling array of footage from Wigstock’s spectacular comeback in 2018, including appearances from Lady Bunny, Bianca Del Rio, Aviance, Ladies of Lips, Amanda Lepore and Harris in full costume from his Tony-winning “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” drag role. If people still don’t understand what drag culture is about, one “Wig” commentator says it best in the movie: “Drag is about putting on the outside what you feel on the inside.”

HBO will premiere “Wig” on June 18, 2019.

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