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!).
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.
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.
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.
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.)
“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”?
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, Stefani expounds at length about a downside of stripping in such an exaggerated vernacular that it is the first scene of many in the film to evoke a deadpan reaction from Zola directly to the camera. This is the first instance for audiences to recognize that she is visibly uncomfortable and imply that she may be questioning her decision to join Stefani on the trip.
“I arrived at this idea of giving Riley a handicap,” director Janicza Bravo said in a recent Vanity Fair article. “Her handicap is minstrelsy. Her handicap is playing a stereotype. And yet, their start line is the same. It doesn’t matter how tender or generous or open Zola is. Her Blackness is also a handicap.”
#5: Zola leaves a lot to what is left unsaid.
To further my thoughts above, Zola proved several points without hammering those points to death. Larger lessons about race, police brutality, sex trafficking, personal boundaries, and abusive relationships were masterfully articulated, sometimes in scenes that took place in absolute silence.
An instance of unabashed police brutality is very intentionally placed in the background of the third act of the film, existing as a transition between scenes, entirely outside of the plot. Viewers can’t help but draw their own conclusions about why this scene is included, but not reacted to, in the movie. It is merely an event that occurs within the world of the film, one that just happened to be captured through the lens of this story.
The inclusion of subtle racial commentary (the Whoopi Goldberg line being a memorable example) was present throughout the script, with eyebrow-raising one-liners and micro exchanges that were often supplementary to the plot and never commented upon, thus illustrating how common these occurrences, like the instance of police brutality, are in the world of the characters.
Without giving any spoilers, I will say the film also finds a cheeky way to portray the conflicting account that Stefani has of the experience as it is told from Zola’s perspective.
#6: This film was definitely worth the wait!
Zola had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020, where it was received with that unique combination of fluttering excitement and critical acclaim specific to Sundance. According to WWD, the Zola movie “quickly became the ‘It’ film to see during the festival — and international rights were later bought by Sony, with plans for a summer 2020 release.” The release was ultimately pushed to this summer in response to COVID-19 and the resulting mass closure of movie theaters.
Would I have liked this movie as much if I watched it on my own television six months from now in South Africa? I mean, I’d still like it. But as much? Definitely not.
There was something about being able to watch this movie in a public setting, hearing the quips and reactions of strangers around me, that really helped to illuminate the fact that this film was created to draw more than one reaction at a time. How grateful I am that Zola’s producers decided to hold the release until theaters had opened back up, rather than opting for an online release or teaming with a digital streaming platform, allowing the film to receive the summer blockbuster attention it so rightfully deserves.
“At first, I was frustrated because I was like, ‘Everyone’s sitting at home. This would be such a joy to watch,’” Riley Keough described to Vogue last month. “But now that it’s coming out in theaters, I’m so happy that everyone waited. With Zola, you want the loud music and big screen.”
#7: The music is incredible!
The startlingly angelic strum of a repetitive harp juxtaposed with the meticulous application of mascara and heavy lipstick. Foreboding brass is reminiscent of the Jaws theme, signaling mounting danger. “Hannah Montana” by Migos blasting as TikTok-style cell phone video is captured. Run the Jewels’ “Love Again” playing as the main characters flee from a fancy Floridian hotel.
Not only are the orchestrations of Mica Levi (Under the Skin, Jackie, Marjorie Prime) hauntingly perfect for each scene, but the film’s music supervisors—Jen Malone, Mandi Collier, and Nicole Weisberg—also do a remarkable job of finding the best bangers to make the plot even that much more scintillating.
#8: Chewing gum could be its own character.
Either could earn nominations for Best Supporting, given their screen time and compelling performances. Three cheers for chewing gum!
#9: The iPhone theme
One of the biggest visual themes of Zola was the iPhone and/or smartphone imagery. Heart and like icons pop up during positive moments of the film, and there are notification sounds incessantly chiming in the background, especially when the tension is mounting.
Time jumps and locations are identified using the iPhone font for date and time, along with lock clicks between scenes. It’s not too heavy-handed but still consistent enough to remind you that this was a story first published on the internet, in a world where smartphones are our conduits for not only acquiring information but also for expressing emotion.
When Zola tunes out in a tense scene, the Macbook default screensaver begins to undulate across a dark screen in her absence as the scene’s audio still plays. What some could see as an era-specific storytelling device could be perceived by many other viewers as a shared vessel of communication—or, at the very least, a relatable format.
#10: Okay, wait… This is way more convincing than Hustlers
Don’t get me wrong. J.Lo’s chair dance to Fiona Apple was a wonder of cinema that our world desperately needed at that time, but something about the authenticity of the exotic dancing in Zola just hits differently. After a bit of research, I found out exactly why.
Taylour Paige (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Boogie), who plays the titular role of Zola, is classically trained in ballet. While this is an excellent and beautiful skill to have, ballerinas are not known for how well they can translate their craft to a stripper pole.
To prepare for the role of Zola, Taylour Paige actually went undercover and danced as a “real-life” stripper in her hometown of Inglewood, California. As Paige described to WWD in February 2020, “The job proved both beneficial as research and as a source of income.”
“I actually really needed the money. I was like, ‘Fuck it. Why don’t I just go in undercover and see what this is like?’… I didn’t want to look like an actor trying to dance, I didn’t want to look like a dancer trying to strip…I wanted to be completely uninhibited, with no judgment and no, like, ‘I’m awkward,’ or me doing the funny awkward growth. I wanted to just be like, ‘I’m Zola. I’m the unapologetic b—h that has us here in Tampa.’”
In my humble opinion, Taylour Paige knocked it out of the park with her convincing dance performances. After seeing the first few scenes, it was so clear to me just how hard she had worked on perfecting a new form of movement and pulling it off like she was a natural.
#11: Spring Breakers meets Pulp Fiction? Hardly.
About Zola King’s original tweeting of #TheStory, Rolling Stone Contributing Editor David Kushner wrote in his 2015 profile, “It reads like Spring Breakers meets Pulp Fiction as told by Nicki Minaj.”
I raised this appraisal to Danny, as he’d already seen the film. Spring Breakers asks the audience to have a big suspension of their disbelief, we both agreed. “But the crazy thing about this movie is that it actually happened.” Well… most of it, anyway.
As the film acknowledges in the opening credits, the story that King serial tweeted in 2015 was not without embellishment. In her 2015 Rolling Stone profile, Zola admits to getting “caught up in the moment” and sensationalizing a few parts of her story. However, she remains strong in her convictions.
“I made people who probably wouldn’t want to hear a sex trafficking story want to be a part of it because it was entertaining,” Zola King told Rolling Stone in her 2015 tell-all profile. And now here we are, captivated by Zola’s story as it is told to us onscreen.
And there you have it, the first movie I’ve seen made from a viral series of tweets. And one that remains as authentic, revealing, modern, and strangely humorous as #TheStory did to Twitter followers in October 2015. Honestly? It’s about time!
Zola is out now in movie theaters. And it was announced this week that the film will be available to rent at home starting July 22, but we recommend you go see it in theatres before then!
If you’ve yet to plan a trip to go see a movie since theaters have opened up again, here is a helpful article with tips about how to safely return to theaters.
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