'Zola' Is a Wild Ride That Matches the Intensity of the Twitter Thread That Inspired It Directed By Janicza Bravo
Starring Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Colman Domingo, Nicholas Braun
Published Jun 30, 2021The journey of Zola from 148-tweet thread to A24 buzz film is oddly fitting. James Franco was originally set to direct and produce A'Ziah King's story, but after allegations of sexual misconduct against Franco, the entire project was shelved. There is a sense of poetic justice that a story about sex work from the perspective of a Black dancer is not being told by Franco. Rather, it's being told by Janicza Bravo — a Black, female, up-and-coming filmmaker who really makes her mark in Zola.
The story of Zola (Taylour Paige) starts at Hooters, where she befriends a customer, Stefani (Riley Keough). After a night of becoming fast friends — capped off with some hilarious subtitle work by Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O. Harris — Stefani invites Zola to go to Tampa, FL, for a weekend of dancing, which Zola hesitantly accepts. Along for the road trip are Stefani's boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and an unnamed man who we simply refer to as X (Colman Domingo).
The weekend unravels into surprise violence, rivalling pimps, and jealousy. And throughout all of the chaos, Zola remains steadfast in her principles, with her strength and confidence necessary to her survival.
Zola benefits greatly from the fantastic chemistry between Paige and Keough. Individually, both actors are tremendous in their roles, especially Keough's (intentionally) culturally insensitive portrayal of Stefani. Braun and Domingo fill out the crew nicely, with Braun's awkward humour cutting through the tension and Domingo's menace a constant reminder of the danger Zola and Stefani are in.
Bravo chose to heavily stylize the film, from the on-screen fonts to the Twitter notification dings peppered throughout, and it pays off. Given that this is the first Hollywood film to be made based on a social media post, it's only appropriate that Zola's aesthetic constantly reminds us of its origins. The stylization avoids being a distraction — rather, it serves the story well.
For all that Zola has working in its favour, there is a rather notable missed opportunity. Those who have read the thread are familiar with the real-life conclusion: X was not just a pimp, he was a human trafficker using "Stefani" (actual name Jessica) as bait to attract young women. The real X was caught, plead guilty to numerous charges including sex trafficking, and is currently serving a 16-year sentence.
Perhaps addressing this would have been a tonal shift too jarring for audiences, or perhaps there was a concern that such a pivot would trivialize a really serious issue. But by King's own assertion, her Twitter thread, while played for entertainment and dark humour, spread awareness of sex trafficking in the United States to people who wouldn't normally want to hear such a story. It's an important aspect lost in the film.
The best thing Zola does is show the sex industry in a truly authentic manner that hasn't been seen on film. Showing the humanity behind the women in this industry is commendable, and hopefully it can help change perceptions and attitudes towards these professions. But Zola could have also been a catalyst for a very important — and necessary — discussion had it revealed the story's true ending.
Zola is a wild ride that matches the intensity of the Twitter thread well. This is Bravo's second feature film, and it's safe to say she's arrived. Although it's disappointing that a critical part of the story is missing from the film, Zola moves forward the discourse about what needs to be done for the women working in the sex industry and challenges our assumptions about them. (VVS)