On April 29, 1992, Los Angeles became engulfed in a riot that would last for several days. The riots were spurred by the rendering of a not guilty verdict in the trial of four police officers. These cops were charged with use of excessive force for a routine traffic stop when it was recorded that they were beating up Rodney King, who was unable to escape or defend himself.
Over the course of the six most intense days of the L.A. riots, 69 people were killed, thousands injured, and property damaged was tallied at over $1 billion. While the officers would be federally charged and found guilty, the trust between L.A. residents, the police officers, and store owners would be much a trickier, longer divide to heal.
That is just the backdrop for the short drama Cypher. Five years after the riots, a Korean-American teen, Jay (Jerome Yoo), finds himself drawn into the underground hip-hop scene. His father Sung (James Yi), disapproves and wishes for him to help around the restaurant more often. At school, Jay has some good friends and is considered an excellent writer.
“Five years after the riots, a Korean-American teen…finds himself drawn into the underground hip-hop scene…”
However, Thello (Alex Barima) sees Jay as an imitator, not someone who understands what hip-hop is truly about. Not helping matters is that Sung is still hesitant to let African-Americans eat at his place, as looters during the riots smashed up the place pretty bad. Everything comes to a head when Thello and Jay agree to a rap battle.
As their mutual love for the genre shows through in their verses, resentments and anger still felt about those needlessly lost in the Los Angeles Riots show that these two rivals may have more in common with each other than either realizes. Can they bury the hatchet and help a still divide neighbor come to terms?
Cypher does not lack ambition, as it packs a lot into its 20-minute runtime. The question then is, does it pay proper respect to the devasting incidents without sacrificing character or drama? Happily, the screenplay by director Lawrence Le Lam, star Jerome Yoo, Jacques Bourassa, and Nach Dudsdeemaytha makes strong cases for each person’s point of view. Jay’s frustrations at how his dad stifles him are relatable. Thello’s abhorrence at how another minority treats him and the anger he feels is understandable.
“…not just its immediate effect, but the lingering resentments that lead to further turmoil.”
Le Lam’s directing is quite impressive as well. Cypher starts off on a blank screen. Then an On-Air sign illuminates, and the camera cranes down until DJ Myth OG (James R. Baylis) is in full view. He then espouses the tale of Jay to his listeners and the story proper begins. It is an effective way to introduce the flow of the narrative, how the camera will weave in and out between sequences, and give the audience a sense of momentum without calling attention away from the ever essential versus the characters spit out at each other.
More importantly, though, it is the acting from the very talented cast that brings the heart of the story to life. As Jay, Jerome Yoo is brilliant. The character, as written, has the potential to come across as aloof and disrespectful, to his father in particular. Yoo makes Jay’s nonplus attitude at his father’s disdain for the culture Jay loves very believable, and this makes the character’s dissatisfaction with his home life empathetic.
Yi, as Sung, is also able to balance the irritation with his kid and genuine concern for him in an effective manner. Bayliss plays the grandiose DJ Myth OG with charisma and a sense of fun. Playing Thello, Barima brings gravitas to the drama, allowing for the heartfelt ending to find the genuine truth.
Cypher sheds light on the impact a traumatic event has on a neighborhood; not just its immediate effect, but the lingering resentments that lead to further turmoil. It tells this story with engaging directing, a smart script filled with realistic characters, and excellent acting.
Cypher (2018) Directed by Lawrence Le Lam. Written by Lawrence Le Lam, Jerome Yoo, Jacques Bourassa, Nach Dudsdeemaytha. Starring Jerome Yoo, Alex Barima, James Yi, James R. Bayliss. Cypher screened at the 2018 HollyShorts Film Festival.
9 Gummi Bears (out of 10 stars)