“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long, but full of suspense.”
With that hell of an opener, in walks 6-inch-heeled Zola, the titular character in what is being billed as the first feature film based on a Twitter thread. The premise definitely presents cause for concern — but no need. Writer-director Janicza Bravo’s film is a glittery tale all its own, a modern-day Odyssey revolving around the real-life A’Ziah King, aka Zola, who became online famous in 2015 for 148 tweets in which she detailed one crazy Tampa weekend that included everything from sex work to Florida gangsters, a pimp, a possible suicide, a kidnapping and more.
The thread itself was a superior feat of storytelling, and with their adaptation, co-writers Bravo and Tony Award-nominated playwright Jeremy O. Harris came up with something that feels equal parts throwback and entirely new.
The film remains incredibly faithful to King’s original account, with a few embellishments thrown in. Waitress-by-day and stripper-by-night Zola (Taylour Paige) meets and befriends a woman named Stefani (Riley Keough) and is persuaded to join her on a weekend of partying and dancing for extra cash. They’re joined by Stefani’s not-so-bright boyfriend Derrek (Succession’s Nicholas Braun, who — looming at 6-foot-7 — doesn’t fit in most frames) and her pimp, an always close-to-the-edge X (Colman Domingo). But quickly, Zola discovers she has agreed to spend 48 hours in hell, where she’s expected to sell more of her body than she planned to.
Zola walks a fine line between terror and hilarity. There is no mistaking that this was a traumatic experience for King, who is a producer on the film, or that this is the lead recasting her narrative in a way she can share it and own it. So while it is laugh-out-loud funny, there’s palpable anxiety and discomfort. That combo is no simple task, but Bravo has pulled it off by bending genre to her will.
In the same way many Black filmmakers have taken to the horror genre to process the traumas of racism, a few female filmmakers have been satirizing grindhouse B-movies to process the traumas of sexism and objectification. It’s ironic, yes, but also deliciously satisfying. If there was anything those films were known for in the 1960s through to the ’80s, it was the exploitation of women’s bodies and people of color. In this way, Zola calls to mind Anna Biller’s 2016 film The Love Witch, which follows the title character as she magically seduces men, scheming to make them satisfy her desperate need to be loved. But her spells work a little too well, revealing the ways in which men view and fear women and the great cost of the male gaze.
Zola expands those themes using the eyes of a Black lead and director. With Paige’s masterful side-eye, the character observes the unrelenting band of white clowns around her in a way that will feel familiar to people of color. We often find ourselves in rooms full of people who don’t resemble us, saying or doing things we would never, and through Zola, we see exactly the way we would process that — low-key disapproval. Keough plays Stefani to tremendous repugnance — she’s essentially in blackface throughout, most pointedly via an inescapable blaccent. Zola never once regards her without looking straight through her. It’s one example of how Bravo never hits us over the head with the racial element of the film. In fact, it may only really be apparent to viewers of color.
Much like The Love Witch, Zola is softcore-lit, drenched in washed-out neon, as the singular Mica Levi’s ’80s-esque score either amps up the dread or blitzes through it like a coked-up night at the disco. And like its source material, it protects the women at the center of its story. Despite the subject matter, neither Paige nor Keough are ever nude — unlike the men in the film (finally, a bit of role reversal). These women are granted a sense of dignity and an emotional weight, their choice of work never once critiqued or judged.
That even comes down to the way their use of social media is embedded throughout the film. In fact, Zola may very well be the first time a film has nailed how to incorporate this element without a hint of corniness. Sounds of a tweet “chirping” as it’s published are peppered throughout the movie, each time forebodingly, and Derrek never seems to be able to look away from a TikTok-like app, which he claims to use to distract himself from the disaster around him (relatable). In one particularly delightful scene, Zola and Stefani swipe through shots of potential johns’ penises as if thumbing through Tinder on an average lazy afternoon. Bravo has crafted a story that is of this moment, uncensored, hysterical and devastating all at once, because if we can’t laugh at the things we’ve experienced, how else do we get through them?
By its end, Zola feels like a hazy dream sequence, complete with a kitschy aesthetic — surreal in its storytelling and satisfying in its representation. When King’s tweets first went viral six years ago, it was as if we read and laughed along with the story in a vacuum, just as it seemed she lived it. By creating art from a troubling moment in her life, it seems King — and Bravo — have given birth to a new kind of storytelling and storyteller. More, please.