You wanna hear a story about my favorite movie of the year? It’s short and there ain’t much suspense in it, but still, when I saw Zola in a theater, there was a cute Black couple in the seats directly behind me and my wife, and they talked to the screen the whole time. I was perfectly fine with it because they were funny and because Zola is exactly the sort of film where talking to the screen feels kinda right.
It’s really a Black film in that its language and energy are very us; also, it’s a story about three Black people who are powerful because they are jousting for supremacy while the three white people who orbit them are mere pawns who exist at varying levels of brainlessness. Zola is a world of danger and double-double-crossing amid Southern sex workers and the thugs and friends around them, but as far as the racial politics of this world, it’s Black people in charge and white people scrounging for pennies.
Zola is also a very millennial film. It’s so meta that it makes no attempt to hide that it’s a story. The first lines are delivered directly to the camera: “Wanna hear a story about how me and this bitch fell out?”
Also, it’s so modern that it lives in the world of the internet where a few clicks on a phone can make or break someone’s life. That’s the world we live in, but most films don’t capture that aspect the way Zola does. It’s a story that was built from a 148-tweet thread: a sister named A’Ziah “Zola” King told this story on Twitter, which is why the movie repeatedly plays the sound of a tweet posting. So many films have tried to integrate words onscreen as a way of dealing with the world of texting, but it often feels hokey or gimmicky while Zola injects the internet into its story in a way that’s more authentic and seamless than most films.
Zola is truly a story about power—it’s a showdown between a man who’s powerful because of violent threats and a woman who’s powerful because she’s intelligent and insists on getting what she’s worth and refuses to go beyond her personal boundaries. It starts out signaling that it’s going to be about the end of the friendship between two women, but really, we get a woman battling another woman’s pimp. It starts out showing us a stripper who you might think would be down for anything—she quickly agrees to a weekend trip to Tampa with a new friend she barely knows—but instead, we get a main character who’s unable to be corralled no matter how much the pimp yanks on the invisible reins.
I love a great story and Zola is an irresistible yarn—a trip that goes bad, a combustible group of people whose interaction eventually explodes and a weekend that keeps getting crazier and crazier. In so many films, there’s an artificial device shaping the story; it’s either keeping the characters tied together or applying tension through a clock as if things must be accomplished within a certain timeframe. But a great story finds more elegant ways to keep the characters together and keep the story tense. Zola does all of that and more—it’s a film about sex workers that gives us a stripper with intelligence and intense self-respect.
Taylour Paige is amazing as Zola. Colman Domingo is awesome (as usual) as the evil pimp X. Jason Mitchell is intense as a scheming thug. But the real star here is director Janicza Bravo who is a major talent. She gives us this awesome story through a grainy look and smart angles. Do not miss Zola, which is, in my book, the best film of the year.