Zola opens Wednesday, June 30, at the Belcourt. See also: contributor Sadaf Ahsan’s review.
For the past 40 years, I’ve been observing the shifts and changes in Tampa, Fla., alongside those here in Nashville (thanks to visiting family in the Sunshine State that includes a brilliant and observant now-retired architect). First and foremost is the way climate change has actually been helping developers by wiping out existing structures and letting opportunists step in. That sameness to modern construction? It’s not just you who sees it. The specific feels reassuring and safe, and the generic is where that unspeakable shit turns up.
And as Nashville has been reduced to tourism — whether because of music history or sprawling party zones — with airports, restaurants and luxury everything looking like the same infestation growing everywhere else, Tampa has retained its distinguishing characteristic of exotic dance bars. It’s the perfect place for an enterprising woman like the titular Zola to go, and it’s where Stefani and X have figured out their own corner of the game.
It’s always been a thing there, right out in the open, and some folk might mistake it for a refreshing sense of civic openness toward the business of pleasure. It is not, but rather a testament to strip-club owners buying their property early in the game and becoming “respectable” in civic affairs in the intervening decades. Though regulated on the inside, you’ll see exotic clubs right next to a Denny’s or adjacent to strip malls. It’s just part of Tampa’s layout. It’s not possible for any American city to be completely honest about sex, but Tampa acknowledges it and at least grants it the same respect as it does Cuban sandwiches and Waffle House.
When the shit gets real in Zola, the film, we leave behind the funky glam of the strip club, and the neighborhood jumble where motel drama and laissez-faire liquor stores meet. There’s a house where Zola takes Stefani, and things get a bit out of hand — but you knew to expect something, because a house in Tampa with enough privacy to not have to deal with light pollution is a house with serious money invested in keeping secrets. There’s not an equivalent for Middle Tennessee, where acreage can allow all sorts of folk to be undisturbed by the world around them. Perhaps being landlocked has its advantages.
We’ll never know if it was a fortunate coincidence or if the filmmakers — in adapting A’Ziah King’s justifiably epic Twitter thread — did the research and planned their shoot for the exact right time of year, but during the “winter,” you see the turkey buzzards in the sky long before you do any of the buildings or bridges or chaotic road construction that is the Tampa-St. Pete area. And even more than the carrion birds that herald our crew’s arrival, the film ends on the Howard Frankland Bridge, a monument to never-ending construction and government slush funds. X and Stefani have their game, and the dancers have theirs, and the state legislature has theirs, and the beat never stops.