Black masculinity and identity take center stage in Letia Solomon’s ‘The Cypher’
Championing underserved voices through film is at the heart of the types of stories that Letia Solomon wants to tell, but it took four years of soul-searching before she made the leap full-time into filmmaking.
In 2012, Solomon graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering from the University of California, Riverside and began working as a materials and process application engineer for Raytheon Company Space and Airborne Systems.
During the weekends and after work, she would find her way into theater and acting classes. In 2013, Solomon had an “aha moment” when she directed her first short film, which showed the behind-the-scenes aspects of filmmaking. She began to realize that what she was doing was project management. “In film terms, it’s called producing,” says Solomon in a recent conversation with the Banner.
She knew she could crunch the numbers, but she also loved the arts and being creative. “At one time I thought had to choose one over the other,” Solomon says. “But once I figured out that I had a perspective to offer and it’s valid, I realized I could be all of these things and still be phenomenal, and still be a whole person that had something to offer.”
In 2015, she wrote, produced and starred in “Untold,” a short film centered on domestic violence that screened at the Black Women Film Network Summit in Atlanta, Georgia. A year later she followed that up with “Elevate,” another short film that she wrote and directed, which was about a bright African American teen living in Los Angeles who enters a robotics competition to win a college scholarship. The short, which was Solomon’s final film project for her course at the New York Film Academy in Burbank, California, won Best Student Film in the 2017 Philadelphia Independent Film Awards.
That same year, Solomon applied to University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. She was accepted and hasn’t looked back. Her latest project is her thesis film, “The Cypher,” which was written by Wes Akwuobi (whom she met during their film classes) and directed by Solomon.
“The Cypher” tells the story of Khalil (played by Nigel Cox), a young African American rapper who is struggling with his identity and sexuality, all the while competing in a freestyle rap competition. The character is somewhat based on Akwuobi, who came out as gay while studying at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Since its completion, “The Cypher” was chosen to screen its world premiere in the 2020 “Shorts: Don’t Look Back” program at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the film’s world premiere shifted to Tribeca’s online film festival, which runs through May 15.
With this film, Solomon hopes that audiences will see Khalil as a human being with all of his strengths and vulnerabilities, she says, and not simply through the lens of his sexual orientation.
As of May 15, Solomon will graduate with a Master of Fine Arts degree in Film & TV production from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. She’s currently working on a feature version of “The Cypher,” and she hopes to be able to direct and produce coming-of-age dramas and comedies as well as films that focus on family dynamics and interpersonal and romantic relationships.