Letia Solomn's 'The Cypher' by Shakilya Lawrence
This year, the Tribeca Film Festival was held online in response to the pandemic from April 15th to May 15th. The festival features a diverse selection of films spanning multiple genres and serves as an outlet for independent filmmakers to get their projects out to larger audiences. It's an honor to be showcased as part of this festival considering participation can create opportunities and further the careers of filmmakers.
The array of different genres shown during the festival allows the space for topics to be discussed that wouldn't normally be examined within the mainstream. One director—Letia Solomon—did exactly that in her film, The Cypher. Her 12-minute short focuses on the life of Khalil, an upcoming rapper participating in a freestyle competition for a record deal that could change his life. However, the illumination of his secret during the competition by his opponent forces Khalil to have to step out of the shadows of his secret and into his truth.
The Cypher immediately dives into themes of black masculinity within the hip-hop community. Director Letia cleverly uses camera angles and positions to create tension and establish the relationship between Khalil and his first opponent. The emphasis on close-ups and noticeable direct eye contact between the two men illustrated some of the non-verbal cues black men use to establish dominance and strength. In a cypher, these cues are crucial as any display of hesitancy or weakness in your performance can ultimately result in a loss. It is important to note here that these traits are reinforced by the hip-hop community but have been the standard for how Black men should portray themselves within the black community for generations. With the introduction of the true antagonist, Yung Reap, after Khalil's performance, the audience gets alluded to the idea Khalil may be hiding something. He delivers the chilling line, "I see right through you," which sets the stage for the rest of the film.
As modern as our world has become, there is still a disconnect between homosexuality, black masculinity, and the hip-hop community. The hypermasculine persona classically portrayed by men in hip-hop hasn't allowed much space for homosexuality to be expressed or even considered seriously within the genre. This film focuses on Khalil's struggle with his identity as a masculine-presenting rapper and publicly embracing his sexuality. It opens the dialogue to talk about the current state of homosexuality and black masculinity within hip-hop and the disconnect and lack of representation that is still happening in a world that is becoming more inclusive.
The film—written by Nigerian-American writer Wes Awkuobi—was initially pitched as part of a course in the USC grad film program. Upon reading the script, Letia was immediately drawn to wanting to bring this story to life. It reminded her of the struggles she witnessed as a young child. She watched the journey that some of her close family members went through as they came out as queer. Firsthand, she experienced her family distance themselves from her relatives and the process they went through to accept themselves. Understanding this was a story that needed to be told, she decided to take on the project. Both Letia and Wes were brought up in immigrant households so the similarities in their backgrounds made it easier to bring their visions for this story to fruition.
Although storytelling has always been a love for Letia, filmmaking hasn't always been the career path for her. She started out with a chemical engineering background and post college worked in aerospace as a materials engineer. Throughout high school and college, she always had a love for the performing arts. However, she didn’t begin exploring this side of herself until she was working full time. She would go to acting classes on the weekend or after working over the course of four years as she perfected her craft. In this time, it turned from hobby to passion. Shortly after, she took a film class at the New York Film Academy to gain more technical skills and to help her decide on her career path. After creating her first film and learning more about the process of telling a story, she fell in love with filmmaking.
Her engineering background proved to be valuable as she transitioned from one career to the next. Skills that she learned as an engineer—like project management and critical thinking—became extremely useful to her as a filmmaker. In 2017, she began a graduate film program at USC School of Cinematic Arts to further enhance her directing skills, better understand how to tell stories she envisioned, and learn more about the industry as a whole. For Letia, "storytelling is where the heart lies," and she wanted to use her passion to be able to tell stories that would connect with and benefit her community.
For the film, she conducted research to help her better bring the story to life, interviewing both black queer men, and heterosexual black men to gain insight on masculinity and how they felt about a queer black rapper. She asked in depth questions like, would they listen to their music or take them seriously. All their input helped to educate her on current perspectives towards gay/queer men in hip-hop. The understanding influenced her directing process and allowed her to better be able to convey tensions and sentiments of the characters within the film.
Directing this film as a Black woman allowed her to offer a unique perspective when bringing scenes to life. As a double minority and someone who is a part of a marginalized group, she understood that plight of learning to love and accept oneself. It was important to her to get this message across as many people could resonate with these sentiments at some point in their life, whether they were a part of the LBGTQ community or not. "A Black male director could've definitely directed this movie. [However], Black women view Black men differently than they view themselves [and] I wanted to show them the beauty of Black men from a Black woman's perspective."
Her perspective was brought to life through the distinct camera cues and carefully chosen lighting within scenes to enhance the beauty and essence she sees in Black men. Lighting was essential throughout the duration of the movie as it helped establish the tone and mood. Each pigment was carefully chosen to compliment the men's facial features and skin tones in their scenes. In one of the film's opening scenes, deep hues of blues and reds reflect off Yung Reap after his initial interaction with Khalil. She uses deeper shades of blue and low lighting to help show a softer side to Khalil as he and his boyfriend share an intimate scene the night before Khalil's final performance.
Her camera angles were essential in highlighting the social cues of Black men, especially within hip-hop. She captures the "primitive mode" men go into when they're sizing each other up—establishing dominance—through the emphasis of slow-mos on the men during the cypher. These cues accentuate the protective, defensive mode men go into when their name is on the line. It's crucial within hip hop, especially rap battles, as an attack on your character or reputation can be hard to recover from. “Sometimes your name, especially in underrepresented communities, is all you have,” Letia describes, “Your word is like gold—it’s your talent, your currency. [They] will do whatever it takes to protect their name.”
Homosexuality within the hip-hop community is an extremely novel concept, even as we enter the Roaring '20s of the 21st century. Negative attitudes towards homosexuality have been engrained within the culture. From the use of homophobic slurs within lyrics to encouraging hypermasculine/machismo behaviors, it's clear hip hop hasn't allowed space for homosexuality to be present in the genre or even seriously considered. The long-standing history of homosexuality and hip-hop proved to be a challenge for Letia as she struggled to get heterosexual men on board with the project. Many did not want to take part in the project once they discovered there was a gay/queer lead. Khalil's role was especially hard to fill because men were against performing the intimate scene he shares with his boyfriend in the film. Some didn't feel comfortable promoting LGBTQ content and disagreed with the portrayal of a queer man in hip hop. "We don't really see, [much] representation of masculine-presenting queer black men in hip hop. It's still very fresh, new, and frankly uncomfortable for people to consider." However, all these challenges helped fuel Letia's desire to direct the film and to share the story with the world. “No one was rude with their opinions, but I understood they weren’t in a place yet to be able to receive [a story] with very real messages that people are currently living through.” She understood there was a lack of understanding which stems from years of hypermasculinity and homophobia within the genre. “If you see two masculine-presenting men kissing on camera and it makes you feel uncomfortable, let’s talk about why.”
The Cypher allow us to strip away many ideas of what homosexuality and black masculinity looks like. It opens the door for us to talk about why the hip-hop community is still so behind in the inclusion of black gay/queer men and why hypermasculinity is still at the forefront of this genre. Thankfully, there is some representation of gay/queer men within the genre like Lil Nas X, Frank Ocean, and Kevin Abstract. However, the genre is lacking gay/queer rappers as a whole and homophobic tendencies and slurs are still a part of the culture. The Cypher is a pioneer in addressing an issue that has been ingrained within the hip-hop community for years. It is up to us to continue the conversation and make the necessary changes to bridge the gap between the disconnect within these two communities.