2020, R, 90 min. Directed by Janicza Bravo. Starring Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nelcie Souffrant, Nasir Rahim, Amelia Rose Monteagudo, Ari'el Stachel, Colman Domingo.
REVIEWED By Selome Hailu, Fri., July 2, 2021
Twitter was founded in 2006. And in 2015, it was reborn.
In October of that year, A’Ziah “Zola” King wrote a thread of 148 tweets detailing her experiences as a Detroit stripper who got tricked into a Tampa road trip that became something bigger than she’d bargained for. The thread went viral before it was even finished; people all over the world refreshed their feeds over and over, waiting for Zola’s next update about getting pimped out and becoming a pimp herself. Since then, she’s been thought of as having popularized Twitter threads as a method of storytelling, and remembered for her outrageous writing. In Janicza Bravo’s Zola, the tale is preserved – repackaged as not just a comedic thriller, but as a way to explore social media as testimony, a source of perspectives we never had access to before.
For anyone who was online when the thread first unfolded, Zola may take a moment to settle into. Tonally, it isn’t exactly what you’d expect. Zola (Paige), a young Black woman, agrees to accompany her new white friend Stefani (Keough) to Florida to dance at strip clubs and make some money together. Real-life Zola played every single story beat for laughs, while the film is more subtle with its humor. Instead of getting Zola’s brash commentary about things like Stefani’s awful “blaccent,” Bravo’s direction makes you sit in discomfort, listening to the racist mockery while staring into Zola’s face. It’s a way to explore the disparity between Zola and the character she made out of herself – the tweets were hilarious, but what must it have felt like to endure in real time? That’s the question Bravo is interested in.
Presumably the first ever feature film adapted from a Twitter thread, Zola makes use of the graphics and sound effects of the internet, as has been common in film for the past several years. But there’s more depth to it here given the context. Rather than just providing a heavy-handed reminder that we’re in the 21st century, the notification beeps and the tweets typed on-screen function to interrupt the timeline of the narrative and emphasize the subjectivity of memory. When shadier characters are introduced, like Stefani’s terrifying pimp X (Domingo), those bits of screen life suspend time. We freeze to hear Zola’s narration, borrowed almost verbatim from her tweets, and know that Zola lived to tell this tale. We’re invited to pay attention to more than just suspense and survival. It’s Zola’s voice we’re here for.
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