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Janicza Bravo’s Zola

Riley Keough and Taylour Paige in Janicza Bravo’s Zola (2020)

Seventeen months and six days after premiering at Sundance, Janicza Bravo’s Zola is finally opening in theaters. Bravo—who has made seven shorts (you can watch four of them on the Criterion Channel) and directed several episodes of shows such as Atlanta and In Treatment—tells Nicolas Rapold that the pandemic-induced delay of the release of her second feature after Lemon (2017) has felt like sitting through a protracted production of Waiting for Godot.

The story behind Zola began in March 2015, when A’Ziah-Monae King, a nineteen-year-old waitress at a Hooters in Detroit, sat down with a customer. As Jenna Wortham puts it in the New York Times Magazine, the two young women immediately “bonded over stripping, money, and internet culture.” The very next day, King’s new friend (she’s called Stefani in the movie) invited King (whose friends call her Zola) on a seemingly impromptu road trip down to Florida, where they could do a little pole dancing and make some quick cash together.

When Zola climbed into the SUV, she found that they’d be accompanied by Stefani’s boyfriend and her “roommate” (referred to in the credits as “X”) who is actually her pimp. Once they’re down in Tampa, X turns out to expect a lot more from these women than a pole dance. Zola refuses, but negotiates a higher fee on Stefani’s behalf. Months later, in October, Zola sent out a call on Twitter for everyone to gather ’round: “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out????????”

#TheStory, a string of 148 tweets, was an instant sensation and is credited with prompting Twitter to allow users to create threads. Wortham notes that Missy Elliott tweeted that she was “reading the whole thing like I was watching a movie on Twitter.” A24, the distributor behind Zola, is publishing The Story as a hardcover, clothbound book with a foreword by Roxane Gay and an afterword by Bravo.

When David Kushner added background and detail for a piece in Rolling Stone in November 2015, Zola’s story became a hot property. James Franco picked it up, held on to it for a while, and then dropped it early in 2017. Bravo spent three months fighting for it—not just because, like Zola, she’s a Black woman, but because, as she tells Wortham, “when I read that story, I was like, This is a traumatized woman who used the power of the pen and the power of her humor to recontextualize that which changed her.”

Bravo cowrote the screenplay with Jeremy O. Harris, the “wunderkind playwright,” as IndieWire’s Tambay Obenson calls him, “whose critically-acclaimed, adversarial take on race, sex, power relations, and trauma in Slave Play likely made him an irresistible choice for a film that interrogated similar themes.” Zola and X are Black; Stefani and her boyfriend are white, but Stefani casually drops racist remarks in a tone and rhythm lifted directly from Black culture. She “presents to Zola a distorted mirror—a performance of Black femininity transformed into grotesque costume, or rather, commodity,” writes Kelli Weston for Film Comment.

Riley Keough plays Stefani as “the walking personification of cultural appropriation,” writes Cameron Scheetz at the A.V. Club. “It’s a brazen role for Keough, who’s proven herself a fearless chameleon of indie cinema, and one that’s sure to inspire many a think piece.” Taylour Paige (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), who plays Zola, tells Scheetz that “Riley’s character is the buffoon, she’s in blackface the whole film, and Zola is the straight man. Just like Lucy and Ethel, it’s a reciprocated effort where I have to have something to react to, but if we’re both too high, I don’t think it would land.” For Scheetz, Paige is “a magnetic anchor” in Zola “as things spin deeper into madness—in watching her process what unfolds around her, the film offers up a brilliant meta-commentary on the art of storytelling.”

Nicholas Braun, known to most as Cousin Greg in Succession, plays the boyfriend, and his “floppy hair, scrap of beard, and gangly height connote superfluity,” writes Lidija Haas in the New Republic. Kelli Weston observes that Colman Domingo plays X “as a charming yet sadistic man who slips in and out of a Nigerian accent, his eye glimmering an eerie green when the light hits it just right.”

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