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► Zola is in UK cinemas now.
Social media has inspired many a modern film, but Zola is the first to be based entirely on a single Twitter thread. Not just any thread, of course: the 148-tweet rant from A’Ziah King, aka Zola, had millions of fans agog in 2015.
Twitter may have its fair share of trolls, but it can also elevate and empower talented voices who might not otherwise have been heard. Zola is one of these – and director and co-writer Janicza Bravo has stayed true to King’s brutally frank, pithy delivery to bring her story to life. It’s a riveting saga of strippers, sisterhood, betrayal and black comedy, and it begins in a Detroit diner.
Waitress Zola (Taylour Paige) is serving customers when she catches the eye of Stefani (Riley Keough). Complimenting her server on her physique, Stefani invites her to hang out, and the two form a swift bond based on banter and a shared history of pole dancing. Stefani invites Zola to revisit her dancing days on a weekend in Florida, promising both fun and cash. But even before they arrive in Tampa, Zola is beginning to regret her decision. She’s trapped in a car with Stefani’s hapless boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and – more disturbingly – what turns out to be her pimp, X (Colman Domingo). “It’ll be 48 hours before I know this nigga’s name,” deadpans Zola’s narration, which uses versions of her tweets to relate the tale. These are accompanied by audio alerts, and it’s testament to Bravo’s skill that these become less irritating as the film goes along: it simply becomes part of its style.
And with pace, humour and performances all delivering, it’s easy to go with the ride. Zola’s turn of phrase is endlessly entertaining, whether she’s mercilessly mocking the increasingly vexed Derrek, or explaining how she persuaded her own boyfriend not to object to the Tampa trip: “I had to fuck him calm.” While there is a palpable sense of female bonding as Zola gets to know Stefani, many of the most scathing criticisms are reserved for the friend she felt cheated by. After all, the Twitter thread in question began with “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out?”
The film also tackles race, deftly acknowledging complexities within the Black community as well as the casual slurs thrown at Zola by white customers. While many treat Zola differently to her white counterpart, Stefani co-opts and exaggerates the mannerisms and phrasing of African-American Vernacular English. Sensitively co-written for the screen with Jeremy O. Harris, Zola feels at once heightened and desperately real, and that reality can be both funny and heartbreaking.
For this is also a story of sex trafficking: of women being coerced into prostitution, then underpaid and abused by their pimps. It’s told with humour, but the message remains: many sex workers are being exploited across America, and behind many strip joints and escort ads there is a culture of violent crime.
Bravo also makes a statement in the way she shoots the sex scenes, often showing the men in unflattering positions. Her use of 16mm film lends an intimacy and grittiness to the film’s bold visual aesthetic, something that also separates it from many a social media teen movie. Thematically, this has appeal beyond the youth market, its outrageous brand of sharp crime comedy recalling everything from The Wolf of Wall Street to Spring Breakers to Intolerable Cruelty.
Like Lorene Scafaria’s 2019 Hustlers, Zola shines a light on female sex workers, who are so often misrepresented and/or marginalised in film. And thanks to the strength of King’s voice, Zola feels even more authentic: a significant feminist work that’s as entertaining as it is educational.