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11 Thoughts After Seeing ‘Zola’ at Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn

Hey, Hollywooders! What’s Good in the ‘Wood?

I just got back from seeing Zola, one of the many new movie releases out now in movie theaters.

Because I am in Brooklyn visiting friends for the week, I took a look at movie theaters near me to compare movie showtimes and settled on going to the 5:15 p.m. showtime at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in downtown Brooklyn (one of the New York City movie theaters included in our local theater guide!).

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My friend Danny, one of the biggest film buffs I know, had already seen the movie Zola a week prior. He had recently gushed to me about it for 10 minutes over the phone before just sending me the movie trailer so that I could see it for myself. I had yet to hear of the film or the tweets until our conversation.

About 30 seconds into the trailer, I messaged him back saying, “We are SEEING this movie when I’m in New York!” 

It was the first movie I’ve seen in theaters since January of 2020, which was consequently the last time I visited some friends in Brooklyn on a trip home from South Africa (where I live!). While there are plenty of movie theaters in Cape Town, where I’ve been for the past few years, the movies are usually a few months post-release in American cinemas. In South Africa, I watch mostly all of my movies at home, once they’ve been released for a few months. But in the US of A, I’m a moviegoer again! I’d missed the experience, not just of watching a movie in a real-life movie theater again since the start of the pandemic, but to see a Hollywood movie a week after its release, in a movie theater that also serves me beer and fried pickle spears without me even having to go anywhere! 


So wait, what is the Zola movie about?

Zola is a movie based on a series of tweets written by A’Zia “Zola” King in October of 2015. Her 148-tweet tale (notoriously referred to in pop culture as #TheStory) immediately went viral after attracting the attention of celebs like Solange Knowles, Ava DuVernay, and Missy Elliot.

#TheStory, described by The New York Times as “an Odyssean tale of friendships gone sour…and keeping your selfhood intact in the midst of chaos,” gained even more attention in a tell-all Rolling Stone profile published in November 2015. In the thread, Zola King (@Zolarmoon to her Twitter followers) paints a vivid and shocking story of a road trip from Michigan to Florida that she embarked upon with a new friend (who in the movie is called Stefani) that Zola (Taylour Paige) met while working at Hooters. 


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Sounds simple, right? Believe me when I say it’s anything but. The two new friends, both strippers, agree to travel to Florida for a lucrative weekend. The plan is to strip at a high-earning club in Tampa. 

“Be ready by two,” Stefani (Riley Keough) instructs Zola via text message in an opening scene, her syruppy twang ringing through the theater in a seductive voice-over. What ends up transpiring is 48 hours in which Stefani, her boyfriend Derrek (played, endearingly and doofus-y, by Succession’s Nicholas Braun), and their mysterious, flashy, and imposing male roommate (Colman Domingo)—whose name is amusingly not revealed until halfway through the movie—cause Zola to experience Florida in a way that blows all of her expectations out of the water…but in the worst way.

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When Stefani reveals to Zola that her roommate (who Danny and I both agreed could be a Nigerian Bond villain) signed them up to “trap” (slang for prostitution) after a low-earning first night at the Tampa strip club, Zola is forced to choose between dipping a toe into the seedy and dangerous world of “trapping” or finding a way to get out of Florida. 

“Who you gonna be tonight, Zola? the main character asks herself in the mirror, trying on different outfits and posing before her performance at a Tampa strip club. Little does she know, the question she asks herself is about to get a lot more fundamental than just her outfit selection.

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What was it like to see the Zola movie at an Alamo Drafthouse? 

The Alamo Drafthouse in Downtown Brooklyn isn’t your average movie theater, either. Gothamist once called it the “holy grail of NYC eat-in theaters.” Located on the top two floors of the CityPoint center, the seven-screen theater boasts vintage French film posters that greet audience members as they ascend the escalators to their theater along with a cinema-themed menu of cocktails, craft beer and wine, finger foods, and full meals—along with delightfully inconspicuous servers that deliver all of the above directly to your seat as you watch the film. 

If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing a movie at a dine-in theater before, an Alamo Drafthouse Cinemais an excellent (and I really mean excellent) place to have your first “wait I don’t even need to sneak in food, there’s a menu!” moment. Luckily, Brooklyn is just one of over 40 theaters across the United States. And there are a slew of additional locations in the Alamo Drafthouse pipeline. It was even announced last month that two new locations will be coming to NYC in Staten Island and Lower Manhattan’s Liberty Place.) 

Okay…Back to the movie! Let’s get into it! Here are (a mere) 11 thoughts I had after watching Zola in a movie theater.

#1: Zola is the first movie I’ve ever seen that begins with, “Based on tweets by…” 

This is officially the first and only film adaptation that I’ve seen not of a book or a play but of a series of tweets. Cool, right? Yes. I’ve decided that this fact is okay (not that anyone asked) and this is probably far from the last movie I will see adapted from social media subject matter. 

The film starts off by declaring in text that the thread of tweets is mostly true. I like this transparency in the opening title cards. The filmmakers make a point to inform audience members about the context of the origin story, along with its nearly accurate although embellished narrative voice. It tells audience members, “If you haven’t heard of #TheStory before, you’re about to. So buckle up!”

I must admit, for the sake of sheer personal interest, I found Zola King’s original (and since deleted) series of tweets and devoured them shortly after watching the film’s trailer. It was fascinating to see how authentic the screenplay stayed to King’s original subject matter, perfectly mimicking the tone and using her tweets as hard-hitting one-liners and a framework for the progression of the plot. 

#2: Wait, did I just see a movie about stripping and sex work with absolutely no female nudity? 


Why, yes…Yes, I did!

But don’t get me wrong. Nudity was experienced! In one particular scene, there is plenty of male full-frontal nudity (an onslaught of male nudity, some might argue) in a stomach-churning montage of flaccid “manhoods” that had my entire theater audibly cringing and/or nervously laughing.

My first reaction upon coming to this realization was, “Let’s give it up for female filmmakers!” This directing choice was clearly not an accident. Director Janicza Bravo (Lemon, Woman in Deep), who co-wrote the script with Jeremy O. Harris (creator of Broadway’s Slave Play) reminds viewers that for this story of female sexuality, there is a woman in the driver’s seat at all times—metaphorically speaking. 

This is the first movie I can think of that deals with subject matter involving female sexuality (and the exploitation and/or empowerment therein) without needing to capture the female form in full nudity. It proves the two are not mutually exclusive; that female sexuality can be the star of the show without ever seeing a female nipple. (Although I admit, there is no lack of twerking in this film.)

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“The conversation started with how nudity looks in American films,” Bravo explained to The New York Times in June. “It always feels voyeuristic and like the woman who was naked wasn’t in the conversation. There’s always something nefarious and naughty about it.” Bravo says the decision to have no full female nudity was always the plan. 

“When I showed up to this text, there were a handful of things I wanted, and one of those things was that I didn’t want to see naked women,” the director told Salon. “I felt there is such a large library of naked lady bodies, and I don’t need to add to that. There are going to be more films to add to this library and I don’t need to be a part of it.”

The fact that the only nudity included in Zola is rather from those on the receiving end of female sexuality makes the use of nudity a manipulation on behalf of director, Janicza Bravo, which renders viewers shocked and even a bit horrified, only adding to the commentary about the feelings that nudity can evoke when portrayed in different lights.

#3: Stripping is not glamorous. Sex work is not glamorous.

I feel like every Hollywood movie I’ve seen has made exotic dancing and prostitution out to be something that they are very much not. Depictions like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Natalie Portman in Closer, and Demi Moore in Striptease come to my millennial mind, and with them memories of older films like Risky Business, Working Girl, and Night Shift, in which “working girls” are very much romanticized, their profession glamorized to the masses without actually showing having to see what goes down behind closed doors. 

Zola shows the dangers of sex work without shoving it down the audience’s throats. But it’s the lesson that we are taught through (a based-on-real-life) example. Is Stefani complicit in recruiting Zola for a weekend that she knows full well will result in “trapping”? Is it a move of desperation and powerlessness, or is she being knowingly manipulative? Is she malevolent for doing so? Is she suffering from Stockholm Syndrome? What if the answer is “all of the above”? 

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The complexity of Stefani’s character especially, in an accolade-worthy performance by Riley Keough, made her elicit the reactions of a tragic figure to the audience in our theater. I heard quite a few frustrated and whiny sighs as the film’s final credits began to roll. Never before had we been shown just how thin the line can be between harmlessly stripping on weekends to earn extra cash and involuntary sex trafficking. Stefani was trapped on the wrong side of that line, reaching for anyone else she could find to grab and toe it with her. 

#4: The issue of race is pervasive and brilliantly nuanced throughout in both the script and the directing.
 

”You look like Whoopi Goldberg,” Zola is told by a strip club patron as he slips cash into her G string, approaching the stage like a moth to a flame. There is hardly a single Whoopi Goldberg-like thing about her at that moment, and that is exactly the point. This is just one of the subtle racially-oriented cringe moments that occur throughout the 90-minute film. 

One of the most polarizing aspects of Zola, among viewers and critics alike, has been the far-from-subtle inclusion of Stefani’s “blaccent,” in which Riley Keough (American Honey, Consequence of Sound) strongly and brazenly channels “hoodrat” vernacular, even laying the edges of her long, platinum blonde weave in the film’s opening scene. 

As The Washington Post described it in their review of the film, “Keough delivers her lines in an affected African American patois, a virtuosic turn in which some might detect the whiff of her grandfather Elvis Presley’s music.” (Yes! Riley Keough is Elvis’s granddaughter, daughter of Lisa Marie Presley and Danny Keough. Cool, right?) 

In her first lengthy monologue to her road trip companions, S