Spoilers below for Cypher.
There are a myriad of celebrity documentaries these days. Cypher is not one of them.
It sure seems like one, though: Centering on the rapper Tierra Whack, the film follows her rise from a viral sensation freestyling on a Philadelphia street corner to a visionary artist who has collaborated with Beyoncé. It has the trappings of a typical music doc—behind-the-scenes footage of her shows, drives around her hometown, confessionals from her and her team—until the conspiracy theorists come in. What begins as an unfiltered look at the rapper’s life frantically spirals into the world of secret societies and cults. First, a fan approaches her after a show with a warning; Whack and her team brush her off. But after the encounter, they receive eerie emails from the fan, including videos about a secret society called the Oculists and their alleged plans to perform an initiation ritual on Whack. She soon realizes she’s being followed, watched, even unknowingly recorded as she travels around the world. As she and her team try to ignore the fan’s fixation, more and more unsettling events occur.
But was it even real?
“No, it wasn’t,” Whack tells ELLE.com. “Thank God, right?”
She laughs on the other end of a Zoom call when I tell her she successfully bamboozled me. Later that night at Cypher’s Brooklyn premiere, she would fool a theater full of viewers who progressively squirmed and shouted at the screen as if they were watching a horror movie. But that’s exactly what she and director Chris Moukarbel, aimed to do.
“I want people to go in almost blind and then it just hits you on the back of the head,” Whack says.
Moukarbel wanted to take audiences “on this journey that they don’t expect,” he tells ELLE.com. “That just made it a lot more fun for me. Tierra is one of these rare artists that would actually be down to do something like this, and I figured that out right away.”
He’s right: The perfect partner for an out-of-the-box “documentary” is Tierra Whack, who’s known to bend the rules of music, art, and fashion. Her 2018 debut album Whack World was revolutionary, consisting of 15 one-minute songs without sacrificing craftsmanship. In 2021, she released a trilogy of EPs titled Pop?, Rap?, and R&B? that experimented and played with each genre. When it comes to brand collaborations, hers range from Vans to Lego. Still, even if the partnership with Moukarbel made sense, Whack was intimidated—this is her first film, after all—but that aligns with her ethos of being brave and doing the unexpected. “I’ll be scared as hell, but I’ll still do it,” she says.
Cypher premiered at Tribeca Film Festival this summer, where it earned the Founders Award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature. Now it’s out on Hulu and in select theaters via Andscape, the platform formerly known as The Undefeated. Moukarbel says he literally came up with the idea in a dream. And as a director who has worked on documentaries before, like Banksy Does New York and Gaga: Five Foot Two, he wanted to pivot and “blur the lines between fiction and nonfiction.” He met Whack in 2019 and floated the idea. “Chris had everything planned and he’s like, ‘I just need you. Would you be down?’” Whack recalls. “I was like, ‘It sounds crazy, but it sounds cool, but let’s do it.’”
“As somebody who’s online a lot, like a lot of us, I was just coming across these recurring stories and conspiracy theories that I think we’ve all seen,” Moukarbel says of the influences behind Cypher. There may be parallels with the idea of the Illuminati, but he began writing the story before QAnon theories started running rampant at the height of COVID-19. That just proved that this film would resonate with the public. “I liked that in any thriller, you’re sort of tapping into the collective anxieties of the culture,” Moukarbel says. “And a lot of conspiracy theories are also really about the collective anxieties, and they kind of are a reflection of when people don’t understand how power is distributed within society, they tend to fill in the blanks and it’s often the most insidious version of what things could be.” The freaky part about all of this? The Oculists did, in fact, exist. The initiation ceremony detailed in Cypher comes from a real manuscript from the 18th century from an actual society called the Oculists, which was deciphered in 2012.
Most of the film was scripted, but it was also reactive to real moments in Whack’s life. For example, when she was invited to appear in Beyoncé’s Black Is King film, Moukarbel found out the night before and was able to get permission to join her behind the scenes. “Suddenly, there’s this incredible set piece for me to be able to tie into my story. And I didn’t really know exactly, because I didn’t have enough time to figure out exactly how to write into it, but I did, for example, plant that little owl radio on her makeup counter and that was just leaving a little breadcrumb that I would find later.” That would eventually become a clue linked to the conspiracy later in the film.
There was another moment when Whack actually fell off the stage during a performance in Chicago, which Moukarbel caught on tape and incorporated into the film. “He basically asked me, ‘Can I use it?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah. Use it all. It’s real life. People need to see that I’m human,’” Whack says. That’s also a testament to the pair’s tight collaborative relationship. “I met him on my birthday in 2019, but I felt like I knew him forever,” Whack says of her director. “I kept telling him that. I’m like, ‘I just want to tell you my whole life. I want to tell you my darkest secrets.’ So yeah, when you’re comfortable with your director, it’s a walk in the park.”
The film closes with a cheeky ending, in which Tierra leaves the audience hanging on whether she was involved in the conspiracy from the start. She looks in the mirror and plucks a hair from her brow, a move pulled from the initiation ceremony. “I knew at the beginning I wanted to break the fourth wall, and I wanted to complicate the story everybody saw with the question of, ‘Was she actually behind all of this?’” Moukarbel says. “It’s like, ‘Well, if we want to signal to the audience that she maybe is behind all of this, all it should take is one little gesture.”
Cypher can be seen as a response to the influx of documentaries right now, too. “We’re living in peak music doc moment, and so the market is so saturated,” says Moukarbel. “I think audiences are a little more cynical now because they’ve seen so many come through and they’re asking, ‘Does this artist really need a documentary?’ And so the way I approached this with Tierra was that for someone like Tierra to do a music doc, it would have to be bizarre and it would have to be, again, genre-defying in this way.”
Whack’s foray into film likely won’t end here. “Eventually I want to get into acting and playing other characters and not myself,” she says. She wants to do comedy films, but also play a zombie. (She’s looking forward to the next season of The Last of Us.) Her interests are “like night and day, 50/50, split down the middle,” she says. It’s much like her approach as an artist. She excels at blending humor with dark and avant-garde aesthetics, the playful with the perplexing, which makes her work all the more compelling.
She isn’t leaving music behind, either. Whack has an album due out next year and just dropped a single, “Chanel Pit,” earlier this month. Another track, called “Snake Eyes,” appears in the Cypher trailer. For the former, she released a music video that shows her going through a car wash, sans car. She gets soaked, spews water, and gets jostled by massive brushes, but remains rapping and smiling the whole time.
“So that is the scariest, most terrifying thing I have done,” Whack says. “We had to rehearse in the machine about five times, and each time it just didn’t get any better. And I’m just like, ‘Why did I say yes to this?’” But part of it was a sweet tribute to her past. “It was my first job. When I was living in Atlanta, I was 18 years old, and that was my first stream of income for myself. And I always remember, I’m like, ‘All right, I’m ready to pursue my music career and I want to get all the equipment and everything I need to fund and support my career.’ So the car wash means everything to me.”
In the end, she was happy with the outcome. “But it worked, and we watched the last take and we were like, ‘Yes!’ Everybody clapped and we were so happy.”
As for the rest of her album, Whack teases, “I’m giving you guys everything, so I think there will be something for every person in the world.”
In the meantime, she’s ready to blow your mind with Cypher. “It’d be nice if everybody was just like, ‘Oh, this is just a documentary.’ And then halfway through you’re like, ‘What the hell is this?’” Judging by some of the audience reactions so far, that mission was indeed accomplished.
Erica Gonzales is the Senior Culture Editor at ELLE.com, where she oversees coverage on TV, movies, music, books, and more. She was previously an editor at HarpersBAZAAR.com. There is a 75 percent chance she’s listening to Lorde right now.