DIRECTOR: JANICZA BRAVO
CAST: COLMAN DOMINGO; TAYLOUR PAIGE; RILEY KEOUGH; NICHOLAS BRAUN
RELEASE DATE 01 AUGUST; 120 MINS
REVIEW by SUSAN GRAY
Imagine an Elmore Leonard novel reimagined by a 20 year old black woman. Then it’s given a vibrating, bass heavy soundtrack, and rearranged into social media friendly narrative, where sometimes you are immersed in action in real time, and sometimes you are commenting from afar, with the wisdom of experience. That’s Zola.
Based on a 2015 twitter spat between Aziah ‘Zola’ Wells and white bitch she fell out with, Zola is an exploration of the overlap between exotic dancing and prostitution, wrapped in a road trip from Detroit to Tampa. Director Janicza Bravo’s take on Zola’s story fizzes with energy, but also reserves sympathy for Stefani the hoe who duped her. Both Taylor Paige as Zola and Riley Keough as Stefani give stand out performances, taking an already clever script to a new level.
Visually Zola is stunning with inventive use of camera angles, cut aways and ‘found footage’ from mobiles. A dick montage, including a rewind for the most voluminous member, interrupts what could be a dispiriting sequence of Stefani's paid sex sessions in a hotel room. Though exactly what proportion of her fee Stefani will see for her labours, and how much goes to her Nigerian friend/ pimp Mr X, is unclear. What is clear is the precisely transactional nature of the encounters, from the moment Zola opens the door to the first trap (punter), and is greeted with: 'I ordered a white chick'. Bravo's table turning move is to visually make the traps into a commodity, while giving Zola and Stefani wit and sparkle, and some degree of agency. When Zola acts at Stefani's madam, to avoid being in a threesome with the traps, her first move is to put up the prices on BackPage, where Stefani is marketed. 'Pussy is worth $500'.
The real life story of Zola hinges on how much agency Stefani had over her actions. Did she deliberately recruit Zola from the sports bar where she waitressed knowing their trip to Tampa was for sex work rather than pole dancing? Or was it a genuine friendship/ overlap of interests that got highjacked by Mr X on the road to Tampa? Given other young women came forward saying encounters with the real life Stefani, when they were stranded or economically vulnerable, ended in entanglement and threats from Mr X, Stefani's flattery to Zola while she served them was probably no accident. Yet they share a love and adeptness at social media, and a moral universe rooted in pragmatism. 'Bitch who won't dance for money, is bitch who'll go with guys for money.'
Stefani's boyfriend Derrek, played by Nicholas Braun is the most tricky character in the film. He is permanently several steps behind the other characters, is lied to, left stranded in a grim motel, and seems to have an Easy Mark sign flashing permanently above his head. Derrek's desperation for inclusion, and the price he is willing to pay, opens another moral chasm for Bravo's film to shine its incisive light into.There's so much more to Zola then 'titties make dollars'.