The tweet that went viral’s gone Hollywood, and it’s as fast and flashy as we’d hoped it would be.
After meeting at a diner one fated night and discovering that not only do they both dance at strip clubs but they ‘feel seen’ discussing their mutual hoeism, Steph texts Zola that she’s going to Florida to make some quick cash dancing and she wants her to come along. Just Steph and Zola –and her boyfriend and their roommate. What could go wrong?
Based on the epic stripper-tweet from 2015, Zola isn’t exactly how the ‘real’ trip unfolded, but whose truth are we meant to accept? Stripper One’s? Stripper Two’s? A scraggly teenager’s who punches himself when he gets upset? The pimp’s? Which of the girls prostituted themselves the night they arrived? Did someone really get shot? Did someone actually jump out a four-story window? Whatever, it’s good fodder for a screenplay.
In the opening scene of the film, Zola asks us, the audience, if we want to hear a story about ‘how me and this bitch fell out,’ breaking what dramaturgs call the ‘fourth wall’, an invisible one that divides the actors from the audience. It’s an audacious, unconventional opening, setting up immediate expectations in viewers and, stylistically, director Janicza Bravo meets those expectations, then raises the bar. There’s glitzy costuming and fast-paced talk, jumpy montage editing during an outstanding scene where the carload of people rap to Migos’ ‘Hannah Montana’, and the film is littered with tweet sound badges and heart emojis. Like a Tarantino film, these girls are nobody’s heroes and their lifestyle choices are not to be desired, but doesn’t it look like fun! And that’s it: this ultra-hyped film brands itself as a fun ride, which is to say that moments of extreme tension weren’t taken to the level that could’ve been exploited in a movie about sex-trafficking and the criminals who inhabit that space, nor were moments of connection through shared trauma. I’m thinking about Doug Liman’s 1999 film Go or Tony Scott’s 1993 True Romance, which are also gritty, wild romps but in those films, the comedy and the unease are skilfully balanced and create a fuller, more complex ride. To be sure there were tense scenes in Zola, but time never slowed for emphasis; the pacing of the film is constant.
Riley Keough as Steph is white-trash phenomenal, entirely believable in her very Southern and African-American-appropriated way. Close your eyes and she practically sounds the same as Taylour Paige’s Zola, who is African-American. Bravo puts a strong stamp on issues of race in Zola but does so through mostly images, so there’s matter-of-factness at play – the ‘Hannah Montana’ song about a white Miley Cyrus twerking like a Black woman being a prime example. As Steph and Zola make their way to Florida they pass a half-mast Confederate flag, and when Steph’s telling a story about someone with ‘nappy-ass hair’ being up in her face or a man at a club tells Zola she looks like Whoopie Goldberg as he’s stuffing money into her bikini bottoms, Zola’s face is a picture of micro-aggression endurance. This is part of what America is: bright, big, bold and racist, and Bravo’s depiction is brazen and chic. Her nomination in the category of Directors to Watch at the Palm Springs International Film Festival for Zola is unsurprising and entirely fitting. I’ll be watching her.
Reviewed by Heather Taylor-Johnson