Tuesday, June 29, 2021

It Was All Whirlwind, Heat, and Flash, or the Strange Saga of Zola and Stefani

(Janicza Bravo, USA, 2021, 87 mins) 

Zola, which was filmed way back in 2018, began life six years ago as a viral thread by Twitter user @_zolarmoon before David Kushner blew it up into a Rolling Stone article later that year that fills in several blanks, debunks a few claims, and confirms, above all, that A'Ziah "Zola" King is very much a real person.

Janicza Bravo's film opens much like the thread as Zola (Taylour Paige, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom), a beautiful Black woman with long, luxuriant hair, is working a shift at a Detroit Hooters when she meets Stefani (the exceptional Riley Keough), a super-smiley white woman and her Black companion. Stefani, with her high ponytail and slip dress, speaks exclusively in what used to be known as "jive"--kind of like Barbara Billingsley in Airplane, but updated for the Cardi B Era. Her favorite words: "bitch," "ho," and "sis." 

Stefani shamelessly admires Zola's attributes, and asks if she dances. Zola catches her drift, and admits that she does (she even has a stripper pole in her living room). So, Zola joins her for a stripping session that night, and a partnership begins, since she's game for adventure, and Stefani is the kind of uninhibited loose cannon who makes things happen. 

Even if you haven't read the original 148-tweet thread, it's clear that Stefani, aka Jessica Rae Swiatkowski, means trouble. Though Zola, who narrates the saga, has a boyfriend, Stefani excites her more--not sexually, but in all other respects--so when she invites her to Tampa to make some quick stripping cash, Zola takes her up on the offer. This time, Stefani shows up with Derrek (Succession's Nicholas Braun), a skinny white dude, and X (Selma's Colman Domingo), her Nigerian roommate. Zola finds the set-up curious, but that doesn't stop her from getting into X's SVU for a Migos-filled road trip. 

Once they get to town, the look on her face says it all. "This was a mistake." That look remains unchanged once she realizes they'll all be sharing the same motel room, but things work out as planned, at least for a while. Bravo pays as much attention to Zola and Stefani's bodies as any director of a stripper story would, from Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike (which featured Keough in a non-stripper role) to Lorene Scafaria's Hustlers. Terms like "male gaze" and "female gaze," though, are in the eye of the beholder. Presumably, the actresses felt more comfortable working with a woman, but they're still dancing for our pleasure as much as that of their on-screen audience. That doesn't make it porn and nor does that make it exploitative, but that doesn't automatically exclude it from those descriptions either. 

If the women don't take everything off, they don't leave much to the imagination either. Zola even makes it clear that she's fine with nudity, except the Tampa club doesn't allow it (the women wear sequined pasties instead). Just when it seems as if the exposed flesh in the film will be exclusive to women, there's an entire sequence featuring nude men. Granted, Bravo doesn't sexualize them in the same way, but it restores some balance to the scenario. 

When Stefani encourages Zola to "trap," i.e. to turn tricks, she adamantly refuses, though it appears she might not have a choice, so she finds a way to turn the situation to her advantage. If that wasn't the case, I doubt Bravo would have gravitated towards the project in the first place, because it's otherwise the tale of a white woman taking a Black woman for a ride. If Zola puts her fate in the hands of a shady crew, she's never as mean or as stupid as any of them. Once she comes up with a plan to avoid tricking, the dynamic shifts, but she's still not out of the woods. Though they didn't kidnap her, she isn't free to leave, and it will soon become more difficult. 

Zola is an attractive film that benefits from the talents of composer Mica Levi (Under the Skin), cinematographer Ari Wegner (The Girlfriend Experience, also starring Keough), and editor Joi McMillon (Moonlight) even as it takes on more weight than an 87-minute film can comfortably handle, including female friendship, sex work, and cultural appropriation. If I prefer it to Bravo's directorial debut, it's largely because she's grown more confident in her filmmaking. She also built Lemon around ex-husband Brett Gelman's boorish character, and a little went a long way. She doesn't strain so hard to be funny here, though Keough and Braun rises to the occasion as need be. 
In contrast with the tweet thread and Kushner's article, Zola Tells All: The Real Story behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted, Bravo ends things on an ambiguous note, suggesting that exploitation by the exploited will never end. In her screenplay with Slave Play's Jeremy O. Harris, she resists turning Zola into a morality play about sex trafficking, but she doesn't provide any release either. No one is punished, and no one gets away, even though Zola witnesses a suicide attempt and a murder.

In real life, she made her escape and the murderer faced consequences, though Jessica has disputed parts of her story. At the time, she told Kushner, she was just trying to provide for her son. She now has two kids, while Zola and her boyfriend have one. Zola also served as an executive producer on the film, meaning money in the bank and a shot at further lucrative opportunities. Jessica, on the other hand, doesn't appear to have benefited in any significant way. I suspect that's exactly what Zola intended.

All images courtesy A24. Zola opens on Wednesday, June 30, at AMC Pacific Place 11, Regal Meridian, and Regal Thornton Place. VOD premiere TBA.  

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