In 2015, former stripper, A’Ziah “Zola” King, grabbed the world’s attention with a 148 tweet thread that began with, “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch here fell out????????” It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”
Fast forward to 2021, where the tweets have now been turned into a feature film directed by Janicza Bravo, who co-wrote the script with Jeremy O. Harris.
Zola is the story of a Detroit waitress and dancer named Zola (Taylour Paige) who is seduced by an outgoing and crass fellow stripper, Stefani (Riley Keough), into a weekend of stripping in Florida for some fast cash. The trip quickly devolves into a sleepless 48-hour odyssey involving this nefarious friend, her pimp, an idiot boyfriend, prostitution, violence, and a whole lot of crime.
While the story started out as a Tweet, as a film the social media posts are woven into a winding tale of whiteness, appropriation, sex work, and the complicated dynamics of interracial friendship.
In the past, to the point of cliché, male scripted Hollywood has typically reduced strippers or women in sex work to one-dimensional roles. They are portrayed as tragic victims with even more tragic origin stories, moral failures and flaws, and a need to be saved by a man.
Zola does no such thing. Even while held against her will on a road trip from hell, the character is in control of herself, her boundaries, and her sexuality. As the film’s narrator Zola is the story’s grounding presence amidst all the madness that ultimately unfolds.
Social media plays a central role in the unfolding of this story with glowing cell phone screens, text read aloud by the actors like monologues, and various social media alerts scoring the film, as the audience takes a doom scroll down into the depths of a road trip gone criminally South.
This provides a very modern, technological tone to this Millennial/Gen Z tale. Additionally, there is a visually and circumstantially surrealistic quality to the film that makes it feel like a neon dream with the sense that danger; the truly bizarre, or some combination of the two, is lurking around every corner- and there is.
That danger includes the exploitation of Zola through the lens of racism. Stefani is a white woman who deceives a Black woman into a road trip under false pretenses. As glamorous as the neon lights of the strip clubs and film’s cinematography may be, make no mistake, in this film Zola is a sex-trafficked stripper.
While Stefani is White, her entire identity is an impersonation. Her clueless schtick comes off as a white girl who desperately wants to be Black, or perform a caricature of a certain kind of Blackness without taking on any of the realities that Black women face in the world.
Stefani is a white trash whirlwind of a woman who takes advantage of another woman. She portrays cultural appropriation and racism on screen in a way that hasn’t been done before, played with charm and humor by the powerhouse actress that is Riley Keough.
This kind of unnerving dynamic, writing, and performance often make the audience laugh in raunchy and dangerous situations that also aim to disturb.
The most refreshing part of the film is Zola’s character and her empowered boundaries within her sex work and personal life that she quite literally stuck to her guns on throughout the entire film.
To show a woman working in a toxic male environment —that is the world of stripping— doing it on her terms in an empowered fashion was something different. Even with threats of violence staying true to her moral code was something that made Zola a tough, admirable, and likable character the audience roots for.
In films of the past, whenever we see a woman utilizing her sexuality she’s either deemed a woman that needs saving or a cold-hearted whore on a tragic path. From the male lens she’s never stripping because she wants to do it or because she enjoys it. Rarely is she portrayed doing it from a place of empowerment that has nothing to do with hatred toward men or a need to be saved by them. Zola is the furthest thing from a male stripper fantasy or cautionary tale.
Zola is a woman in control of her sexuality in a way that has zero relation to men and what they want. This character is just a levelheaded young woman stripping on her terms not bending to anyone’s will, not on drugs, not depressed, not being controlled by a man, not being abused by a man- she was in her own sexual power and that is the kind of stripper story we have never seen before.
The only work that comes close is the film’s costar Riley Keough’s 2016 leading performance in the miniseries about high-end escorting, The Girlfriend Experience. Once again, this actress also delivers a profound performance. Keough truly has a knack for playing women in sex work in a way that feels fully embodied instead of a the caricatures so often shown on screen.
In this film, Keough’s character Stefani, who also chooses to utilize her intimacy and the act of sex as a transaction for money, is portrayed from the perspective that woman is the one in control and as the one more human than the men who use her body.
In a montage where the men show up for a sexual service, though the female lens, the men are portrayed as parade of interchangeable bodies, penises, and their unnervingly similar moves—or lack thereof.
In this moment the film’s depiction of these men becomes a kind of transactional anonymity – the Hollywood generally imposes on female sex workers, not their johns. It’s groundbreaking.
After all the twists and turns, the third act is structurally a bit discombobulated and the film’s ending is abrupt. Other than the mention of plane tickets prior to yet another fiasco event, there is no real resolution of Zola escaping this road trip from hell in limbo we are all stuck in with her.
As she is in the backseat of the car with her face out the window feeling the Florida breeze on her skin, with the same delinquent crew she started her literal and metaphorical trip that went South, we can only know from the real-life tweets that Zola made it out alive.
This same car window shot of Zola, would have been much more powerful in a car alone or out a plane window alone, defining that this resilient woman escaped both death and prostitution and lived to tweet the story.
Zola Director Janicza Bravo expressed her aspiration with this work, “ I hope that the Black women who see the film feel seen and feel heard.” Through this film’s female-forward narrative from a Black woman, actress, and director, women in of color are certainly being seen and heard as well as women in sex work and women at large.
Zola is currently in theaters.
BOTTOM LINE: Zola is a REEL SEE
Megan Penn reports on the indie film market and anything that empowers women and underrepresented groups.