Outrageous black comedy ‘@Zola’ instead captures dour reality

Zola’s failure to live up to its potential has at least something to do with its potential being well-publicized. As the project was ditched, it eventually fell to a smaller studio in A24, but they’re the masters of movie marketing right now and they’re making a bit of a powergrab as theaters recover from COVID-19, so Zola’s profile only rose. Images courtesy A24.

6/10 With Twitter threads, like movies, it’s how you tell the story that makes it good, and neither Zola’s 2015 Twitter saga or the resulting new movie @Zola are told well.

Detroit, 2015- Hooters waitress and part-time stripper Aziah “Zola” King (Taylour Paige) meets another stripper named Stefani (Riley Keough), who invites her on a trip to Tampa, Florida a day later. Zola is prepared to dance, but discovers Stefani is actually a prostitute and has come down to Tampa with her pimp, referred to only as X (Coleman Domingo), because there aren’t any Johns in Motown, I guess. Stefani’s boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) is also along for the ride, for some reason. Zola spends most of the trip uncomfortably watching X abuse Stefani and trying to minimize her role.

The hook with Zola was that it’s a movie based on a Twitter thread that went viral in 2015, and that it isn’t really a hook. Most movies are adapted from something or other. Having it be a Twitter thread – or the Rolling Stone article fleshing out the Twitter thread, which is the type of thing movies are pulled from all the time – may change the writing process, but once it’s rendered into a screenplay, it’ll be business as usual from there.

It’s not a particularly faithful adaptation. The thread only goes into real detail on a few scenes more than halfway through the trip, and those details are changed. They’ve also changed the names of everyone involved except Zola herself, for some reason – that doesn’t affect the movie at all, it’s just a weird choice to mask identities that are already so public. It’s probably because Zola was the only one who gave permission to use her name or likeness. 

All adaptations change details, but where this movie really fails to capture its source material is in its perspective. Twitter threads like Zola’s are inherently first-person narratives, but Zola is mostly related from a flat third-person perspective. Zola gets some narration at key moments, but the audience sympathizes with the camera, and for a movie to really be about a single character’s experience, the camera needs to bolt itself that single character’s experience – show us the world as she sees it, zoom in on what grabs her attention, hide from us what she does not know. Zola makes little effort to put us in the title character’s head and frequently leaves it, breaking in the middle of the movie to show us Stefani’s slightly suspect side of the story and otherwise cutting to plenty of scenes Zola isn’t in.

Despite not giving us enough of Zola’s explicit perspective, Zola does give us all of its title character’s discomfort. That’s not really what I go to the movies for, especially for something advertised as a black comedy shot and edited in a way that tells me it’s supposed to be a fun, flirty adventure.

It’s also not a particularly interesting story. The thread is boring, and its subject matter is mundane. That’s the dark, mildly embarrassing truth underlying this story, this movie and both of their receptions – people are calling it a black comedy with an outrageous story, but it’s pretty everyday for people who are being trafficked for sex, and based on the sheer amount of time spent abusing Stefani and Derrek, a character who is obviously mentally ill and who’s real-life counterpart Zola describes as having bipolar disorder, I have a pretty hard time laughing.

Many will be familiar with the psychological abuse that goes into the defacto sex slavery enabled by forcing sex workers underground, and for those who aren’t, Zola’s thread isn’t a particularly good introduction to it anyway. Read up, and as a matter of keeping sex workers safe, human rights and basic human decency, do what you can to support legalizing sex work immediately. You can donate to the national non-profit Decriminalize Sex Work here.

This wasn’t even somebody’s passion project. It was initially announced in February 2016 with James Franco set to produce and direct, eventual writer/director Janzica Bravo only came onto the project in 2018 as he was getting progressively cancelled. It’s just one of those movies. Somebody cared enough to get the ball rolling, and it slithered and fell its way through the machine.

Which isn’t to undermine the work Bravo’s done here. Zola is a fine technical film with more highs than lows. It’s bright and colorful and has several distinctive moments and images, and she wrings fun, delightfully evil performances out of Domingo and Keough. The problems are the missed opportunity Zola represents in context, which makes more sense after realizing this wasn’t really Bravo’s baby.

There has to be a way to make a movie that’s primarily about Twitter, something that incorporates the storytelling conventions that have emerged on the platform and the way it’s changed the world – it basically came out of the birth canal overthrowing governments 10 years ago in the Arab Spring – but no specific examples spring to mind. It’s pretty startling to read something described as a “saga” in its entirety in about four minutes, and it really drives home the ways Twitter has shifted our attention spans and thought processes in its short time. Zola certainly isn’t the movie to capture it.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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