Zola | Director: Janicza Bravo
Cast: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo
Duration: 1 hour 26 minutes | Language: English | Rating: 4
The story of Zola began life as a viral Twitter thread in 2015. And to reimagine a story birthed by social media into a cinematic approximation, writer-director Janicza Bravo makes some ingenious choices. The kinetics of being extremely online are simulated in the hyper-intensity of sensory details on screen. The editing mirrors the frenetic cadence of our digital lives. When characters take selfies, the screen mimics the effect of a camera shutter. Notification pings and screen locks add to the audio-visual deluge, often interrupting the train of thought, which is really what a Twitter thread is. The bells and whistles of the sound design mesh seamlessly with Mica Levi’s harp-driven motifs. Similar to how our minds adjust to the meshing of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds, it takes a while to adjust to the assault of fresh stimuli that comes with transposing the vernacular of social media to film. Once they do, it is impossible not to be overawed by the sheer cinematic verve Bravo displays in her second feature.
In a roller-coaster thread of 148 tweets, Aziah “Zola” King (username: @_zolarmoon) recounted what David Kushner described in his Rolling Stone article as “the greatest stripper saga ever tweeted.” Waitress and part-time pole dancer Zola (Taylour Paige) is working a shift at a Detroit Hooters when she befriends Stefani (Riley Keough), a white customer who truly stands out from the crowd with her high ponytail, long acrylic nails, and affected blaccent. The two vibe instantly over their “hoeism,” as King called it. Bravo frames the fated first encounter like a meet-cute. Bells and harps play as Zola and Stefani stare obsessively into each other’s eyes. The scene is rounded out with a double tap of a heart emoji. It’s infatuation in the age of Instagram.
The night of their first meeting, they hit the club together, and share personal and professional grievances. “I feel seen. I feel heard,” read the subtitles used not just to translate a conversation heavy in slang, but to underline how they are on the same page. Following which, Stefani invites Zola to join her on a road trip to Florida for a weekend of partying and pole-dancing to make some extra cash. Zola accepts without too much hesitation. Also joining them are Stefani’s lanky, dopey boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and her mysterious “roommate” X (Colman Domingo).
On checking into a seedy motel in Tampa, Zola soon realises what she has signed up for. That Stefani has brought her on a ruse to “trap.” X isn’t Stefani’s roommate, but her overbearing pimp, who has set up a Backpage for the two of them to turn tricks for him. Zola is justifiably upset, but realises she must figure out a way to turn this adversity to her advantage. Derrek, being a manic-depressive man-child, isn’t too happy about any of it either. In the 48 hours of chaos, the surprises keep coming with gangsters and guns, a kidnapping and a suicide attempt.
With Zola, Bravo’s treatment of the Internet and social media goes beyond the superficial and simple moral judgments. The Internet is more than just a breeding ground for exhibitionists and voyeurs. Social media is more than just a tool to bring them together. Treated as baseline conditions inextricably linked to everyday existence, the two inform the film’s aesthetic and narrative choices. King’s tweets are embedded as direct quotes on the screen, with Paige often reading them out, like an externalisation of an internal monologue. Just like the Twitter thread, the film opens with the famous words, “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out????????” Bravo’s inquisitive gaze canvasses the varied emotions hidden behind the additional question marks. Paige’s eyerolls and the “WTF” expressions convey a specificity that emojis can only simplify. She flawlessly plays a Black woman who must always stay a step ahead if she is to survive in a world governed by the covert power games of white people. Stefani’s power game is the disarming guise of friendship, that sisterly smile she uses to tempt Black women like Zola into unfavourable circumstances only to gaslight them into thinking it was for their own benefit. Zola’s self-protective instincts take over once she becomes wise to it. Even as her emotional scaffolding is slowly dismantled in real time, she keeps her nerve to fight for herself.
And fight for Stefani too, warts and all. Zola’s white friend puts on a show of performative allyship. At a key point, the perspective shifts as Stefani offers her side to the story. Her blonde cornrows are replaced by a top knot bun. Dressed in a pink dress suit, she presents herself as a charitable God-fearing Christian, while presenting Zola as a burlesque embodiment of the very ideals she appropriates. If Stefani filtered through Zola’s eyes feels like a real, vulnerable woman being exploited, Zola filtered through Stefani feels less like a person, more a compendium of racist stereotypes. There is a degree of unreliability to both accounts. Zola’s story explored through Bravo’s gaze paints a colourful but candid picture of the events. Stefani’s speech and mannerisms are exaggerated to cartoonish effect because it’s Zola’s perception of her. Keough’s performance is garish to match her character’s outsized personality, who casts a spell on viewers much like Stefani does on Zola. Making us sympathise with a mostly unsympathetic character, Keough brings remarkable emotional depth to a woman who has no sexual autonomy. In the montage where Stefani has sex with a string of men on a single night, she must dress, behave and personalise the experience based on the client. Zola stays at a distance but refrains from judgement. In fact, she helps Stefani set up a better profile so she can earn a lot more money.
Like Zola, Bravo too refrains from any judgement of sex work, instead turning the gaze on the clients. In both Zola and Stefani, she sees two women simply trying to endure harsh realities. If Zola often zones out on her phone across the two days, it is her trying to deal with unpleasant circumstances the only way she can. Turning the whole escapade into a Twitter thread is King owning her story. And Bravo ensures King’s voice is heard throughout the film, and it remains as strong as her own.
Zola will be available to buy and rent on BookMyShow Stream from 1 November.