Words by Fiona Callow
“You wanna hear a story about how me and this b**ch fell out? It's kind of long, but it's full of suspense.” So begins 'Zola', and the infamous Twitter thread that inspired the film’s chaotic journey to nowhere and back. Debuting at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, the pitch-dark comedy thriller was an instant talking point, sparking debate about social media, female agency and fast friendships.
Truly a project of the modern age, the inspiration for the film came from 148 tweets that went viral in 2015, narrating a hellish journey to Florida, from the real-life Zola, A'Ziah King, a waitress from Detroit. The notorious Twitter thread - dubbed #TheStory - was later discovered to be more of an embellished half-truth, but its innovative way of capturing the internet’s attention had already been spotted by Hollywood.
Adapted for the screen by Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris, the film divided critics at the festival, some feeling as though it encapsulated the recent push for a female forward narrative, while others left wondering if the very fine line the film walked between feminist reclamation and misogynist exploitation, wasn’t sometimes crossed.
In an article for Variety, Peter Debruge described it as: “Rowdier than Hustlers and The Florida Project put together, but hailing from a similar place of for-hire female empowerment, Zola is an irreverent, sensibility-offending trip for audiences - a good many of whom may be shocked to their core.” As an unflinching and deeply dark slice of surrealism, shock is exactly what this film delivers, with a gritty subject matter that becomes quite harrowing at times.
The age-old trope is that women in the sex industry - and especially women of colour - have little room to have their voices heard, and have to atone for being involved in sex work, or for monetising their bodies. However, this film doesn’t ask this of its female characters. We don’t judge them for hoping to make some quick money dancing, but instead we blame the men who cannot let this agency go unchecked, wanting to be in control of both supply and demand.
The two leads, Taylour Paige and Riley Keough, have garnered many deserving accolades for their powerhouse performances. They provide the perfect equilibrium to the other: Paige is collected, skeptical and savvy, while Keough is more erratic and desperate for approval, seen in the forced affectation of her voice and her culturally appropriating cornrows. David Rooney described their relationship as representing the “story of one woman whose body is commodified by a controlling pimp [yet] the dominant perspective is that of another woman who never surrenders her cool-headed agency.”
Zola is indeed an unapologetically female-oriented film. The male characters are intricate but terrible - a litany of lowlifes, pimps, johns and drug dealers who evoke little to no sympathy, unlike their female counterparts. There’s the full frontal male nudity and the gleeful comparison of penis sizes to offset the sexualisation and exploitation of the women.
The filmography is beautiful. The window through which we view the action is like a hazy Floridian night crossed with a fairy tale; you can feel both heat and horror through the screen. Filled with sounds and images of Twitter notifications, ringtones and social media ‘likes’, it ties in the original source material, while giving it a jarring sense of a modern-day odyssey.
Perfect, it is not. But it is the flaws that make this project interesting: Zola bolsters the ever-expanding canon of films written, produced and directed by women that explore the complexity of womanhood, both within and outside of the male gaze.