You know how folks will typically amp themselves up for a night out at the club by exclaiming, “This about to be a movie” and it is never an actual cinematic experience? Well, that is certainly not the case for one of the best Black Twitter threads in the history of the social media platform. That shit was most definitely a movie.
Cue Janicza Bravo’s Zola.
But, before I get to the actual movie, let’s drop a refresher.
On a seemingly normal pre-Halloween evening in 2015, A’Ziah King tweeted an epically wild saga on her previous Twitter account @ZolarMoon (now, @DaRealZola). Like many other Black Twitter participants, I lied down on my stomach, scrolling with rapt attention at every single beat of the story.
With every updated tweet, stakes got higher and plot twists emerged. Every single one of us thought, “This shit is a movie.” And thankfully, our wishes were granted.
OK, back to regularly scheduled movie-reviewing.
A24 breaks down the synopsis:
Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”
Thus began the odyssey of one A’Ziah King, aka ZOLA. From acclaimed writer/director Janicza Bravo, Zola’s stranger than fiction saga, which she first told in a now iconic series of viral, uproarious tweets, comes to dazzling cinematic life.
Zola (newcomer Taylour Paige), a Detroit waitress, strikes up a new friendship with a customer, Stefani (Riley Keough), who seduces her to join a weekend of dancing and partying in Florida. What at first seems like a glamorous trip full of “hoeism” rapidly transforms into a 48-hour journey involving a nameless pimp, an idiot boyfriend, some Tampa gangsters and other unexpected adventures in this wild, see-it-to-believe-it tale.
As one of my most-anticipated Sundance features, I was geeked to attend the premiere of what was to be the wildest ride. In fact, the real-life “Zola” was present and accounted for at the premiere in a perfectly styled leopard-print dress and eye-catching fascinator.
From the very first time Paige speaks as Zola (the film literally kicks off with the first tweet that started it all), the actress perfectly embodies the badass aura of who we all pictured Zola to be as we read her vastly entertaining tweets. I’ve been rooting for Paige since Hit The Floor and was thrilled that she was able to incorporate her fabulous dancing skills and overall athletic ability for this film. And while we’re talking stand-out acting, I definitely have to extend major props to the fucking chameleon known as Colman Domingo, who portrays the domineering and eccentric pimp.
Plus, every single twist and turn of the ride is accompanied by an effective array of social media sound effects (go sound department!) and a twinkly dreamy score (shout-out to Mica Levi). Equipped with Oscar-nominated editor Joi McMillion, Zola rolls up to the audience, says, “get in loser, we’re going stripping!” and from then on, things escalate quickly and unexpectedly.
In 2016, James Franco was slated to direct, produce and star in the then-in-development film, however, directorial duties shifted over to Bravo (who also co-wrote the film with Slave Play scribe Jeremy O. Harris, based on King’s tweets and David Kushner’s Rolling Stone interview), which, in my opinion, was the very best decision for the film.
“I wanted [her] to feel stressful the way those kinds of people feel stressful to me. She’s in blackface and I think, it’s a black woman and a white woman and a story about their relationship,” Bravo noted of Stefani (hilariously portrayed by Riley Keough), the “bitch” who led Zola on the wackiest adventure ever. “I remember when the Twitter thread came out, there was this idea that the story’s from the ghetto and Aziah was like, ‘Actually I’m from the suburbs.’ There’s a version of this movie directed by somebody else in which Taylour and Riley are swapped, and it was very important to me to make sure that Taylour was what I needed her to be, which was a subversion of herself, while Riley was a version of a nightmare.”
As I said about Toronto Film Festival darling Hustlers, there is an obvious female gaze wrapped all around Zola and the film is better for it. Specifically, having a black woman helm the story of a strong-willed, no-nonsense, sexually powerful black woman is nothing short of liberating. Additionally, having a female cinematographer (Ari Wegner) on crew is apparent in the beautifully orchestrated shots of Zola’s pole dancing, which serve as a sexy symphony instead of the exploitative crassness oft-seen of strippers. And as Bravo pointed out in the aforementioned quote, if another (read: white) director had taken the reigns, Zola would’ve most likely been a stereotypical trope instead of the highly reliable narrator she was.
In fact, her words are especially relevant in an industry that has culturally tone-deaf critics calling the film “ghetto-tastic” despite the film featuring an entire montage satirically and critically examining white people’s propensity to engage in blackface, blaccents and otherwise culturally appropriating behavior. Yeah, this happened:
I will say there is a point in the third act that made me pause and it involves a potentially triggering scene with Jason Mitchell, a currently complicated casting choice, especially since Franco’s initial exit was reportedly due to his own sexual assault allegations.
Overall, Zola will take you on the wildest ride, whether you are familiar with the Twitter thread or not. If you do remember the Twitter thread, Zola is everything you visualized in your head and more. If you don’t, well, you’re going to want to read it after you see it. And I hope everyone gets to see it (at the time of this article’s posting, a theatrical release date hasn’t yet been announced) and ride this crazy-ass ride with me.
Update: 1/27/2020, 6:05 p.m. ET:
And just like that, we have an update! According to the film’s official press release out of Sundance:
Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions (SPWA) has acquired the international distribution rights for ZOLA from A24. SPWA will distribute the film in all territories except North America, China and Japan. VVS films has also acquired distribution rights in Canada. A24 is planning a summer 2020 release of the film.
That’s right! A summer theatrical release. Perfect for this road trip-esque film. Get ready, y’all.