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- Directed by Janicza Bravo
- Written by Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris
- Starring Taylour Paige, Riley Keough and Nicholas Braun
- Classification R; 90 minutes
- Available on-demand including on Apple TV/iTunes and the digital TIFF Lightbox
There was a collective groan across the internet when Black critics discovered that James Franco, the director of The Disaster Artist and the subject of now-settled sexual misconduct allegations, was attached to direct the film adaptation of A’Ziah (Zola) King’s infamous 148-tweet epic detailing a trip to Tampa gone wrong.
Thankfully, instead of being made to endure the secondhand embarrassment of yet another white man taking the reins on a Black narrative that he inherently lacks the range to tell (Waves, I see you), Franco was replaced by Janicza Bravo. The indie director had established herself with the complex entanglement of emotions that was 2017′s comedy-drama Lemon and should have been one of the first choices to helm Zola – it takes more than starring as a culturally appropriative rapper in Spring Breakers to tell this story.
King’s Twitter thread, which follows the former waitress and dancer after she meets a white woman named Jessica who invites her to Tampa to work the clubs together, had us on the edge of our metaphorical seats, laughing and gasping as we wondered what exactly would happen next. It quickly caught the attention of celebrities on Twitter, with people such as Missy Elliott and Solange Knowles co-signing the readability of King’s out-of-this-world serial.
King’s refusal to embrace respectability politics and her transparency in laying bare the social hierarchies of sex work are no doubt a large part of her Twitter thread’s popularity. While Twitter offers what some may call a more consumptive mode of entertainment, Bravo approaches Zola in such a way that disallows any subjective centre outside its main character. The film continually returns to her as its point of reference and source of knowledge, ensuring that we sit with the full range of Zola’s being.
Broadway phenom Jeremy O. Harris (Slave Play) acts as a co-writer alongside Bravo, and together they shape a screenplay that knows exactly how and when to engage with the social intricacies within King’s thread. For some it may seem like a one-and-done account of a night of unhinged chaos, but what Bravo and Harris bring to the foreground here are the more insidious, lingering elements of Zola’s world: The microaggressions, the cringeworthy cultural appropriation, the blatant misogynoir within the sex work industry. The screenwriters form a natural expansion of King’s saga in a way that necessitates a lived understanding of it, if only in aspects.
Zola, played here by Taylour Paige, is framed throughout the film as its main onscreen focus, oftentimes with her figure being doubled or tripled through reflection or more formal modes of visual experimentation. Within this we witness her endure each and every act of white foolishness that surrounds her – Bravo focuses with knowing intention on Zola’s face, gestures, words and, tellingly, silence. While the many situations the women find themselves in range from upsetting to hilarious, they are also a catalogue of the ways in which Black women, specifically sex workers, are made to endure a hellscape of gendered anti-Blackness and expected to take it in stride.
Zola is a critique of whiteness made all the more successful for its ability to portray King’s experience without doubt and in full faith. This is achieved without pandering, without moralism and without overdramatizing the story (which King herself has coyly admitted does, like any good tale, include some embellishments). The film doesn’t exploit its stunning source material for shock value or entertainment for entertainment’s sake; rather, it offers up a deceptive simplicity in its close treatment of King’s tweets.
What Bravo forms is a coalescing of tonal highs and lows that speak truthfully to the realities that converge here. The subtleties and not-so-subtleties of environments, spaces and the relations within them – often punctuated here by silence or the full-on muting of dialogue – mingle with a winking visual aesthetic clearly informed by online culture. It is just one of the many ways that Bravo is able to flawlessly bring together seemingly disparate elements and tones in her work.
Bravo’s style echoes King’s own: It is fun and whimsical, formally playful, sometimes bordering on the fantastic but always grounded in the real and the intimate. King’s thread hitting mainstream Twitter was emblematic of the ways in which sex work has increasingly become more visible, especially online, over the past several years, and here Bravo is able to translate these cultural textures to the screen with a brilliant clarity of vision.
In a decade of filmmaking that seems intent on hitting us bluntly over the head with “important” messages, it is more than refreshing to see a film like Zola, which not only gets it but gets it so easily.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)