‘Zola’ gives proper life to A’Ziah King’s viral Twitter epic — as the lived experience of a Black woman, not a cartoon for the male gaze

Hot girl bummer: Taylour Paige plays the title character in Zola. - Anna Kooris / A24
Anna Kooris / A24
Hot girl bummer: Taylour Paige plays the title character in Zola.
"You wanna hear a story about how me and this bitch fell out? It's kinda long but it's full of suspense."

That was the tweet that introduced A'Ziah King, aka @Zola, to the world. And in a 140-character world in which threads had yet to become an art form, it was full of suspense (especially if you were reading along in real time, as I was lucky enough to be), and it was unthinkably long by 2015 Twitter standards.

As for the movie, though, which finally hits screens June 30 — if you read that thread, you already know the story, so there's not much suspense. And at 80 minutes long, not counting the end credits, it's not that long.

So there's no such thing as a spoiler here when it comes to Zola's plot. It's a buddy movie of a sort, in which Zola (Taylour Paige), a Black waitress/part-time stripper, meets and falls deep into a friend-crush with Stefani (Riley Keough), a white stripper/part-time prostitute, who invites her on a road trip to Florida to dance and "make some cash." Even before they've lugged their Vuitton bags into a nasty Tampa motel room — Zola, Stefani, Stefani's feckless boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun, playing a lower-rent version of his Cousin Greg character from Succession) and Stefani's "roommate" (actually her pimp) — Zola is having misgivings about the crowd she's rolling with. By the time she realizes Stefani has duped her into accompanying her to a much nicer hotel room to turn tricks, Zola is gritting her teeth, determined to just get through the weekend and never see these people again. 

Events spiral from there.

Riley Keough and Taylour Paige take a selfie. - Anna Kooris / A24
Anna Kooris / A24
Riley Keough and Taylour Paige take a selfie.

It's clear Zola is no babe in the woods — she's bemused by the club's pasties-and-thongs requirement, stressing that she's "a full-nude type of bitch." And from the very first scene, Zola is more efficient than anyone around her: the hostess at her diner, her clueless boyfriend, and eventually, Stefani's pimp. (In the nice hotel, she's got no ethical problem with Stefani trapping, though she's angry Stefani attempted to drag her into it as well; she snaps into get-shit-done mode, tells Stefani her pimp is lowballing her, and simply deals with it.) But, while Zola may be experienced in this milieu, she reserves the right to pass on any part of it she doesn't care to participate in. That agency is the difference between the two women.

Another difference between the two: Paige may have the most expressive features I've seen on a screen in years — just watching her mutter her texts under her breath as she types and sends is enthralling — ("LOL, IDK, ILY" never sounded so heartbreaking) — but Keough's robotically calculated face and cool, dead eyes make a perfect contrast. She's the sexiest cross between a shark and an adding machine I hope never to encounter. 

The plot twists that were breathtaking in 140-character bursts are barely wiggles on the movie screen, accustomed as we are now to absurdly convoluted prestige-TV thrillers. Truly, the only revelatory moments come in the details. Zola is full of juicy, almost haptic detail: the sound design is lush with clicks, whooshes, trills, whistles, glissandos; the locations are purely down-home to any Floridian — giant crosses, even bigger Confederate flags, 1-800-ASK-GARY billboards, sickly-green fluorescent fixtures buzzing with dirty magnets and palmetto bugs. Appropriately for a story that originated on Twitter, the smartphone is a central character — Derrek, Stefani and Zola live life on their phones, their experiences mediated by screens, their careers and bodies facilitated with apps and filters.

No, the real suspense, the real twists (and even the "kinda long"-ness, considering how long it took to get to the screen) are present behind the scenes of Zola. This story was written and (to some extent; how much is "true" is the writer's prerogative) lived by A'Ziah King. Yet the film option was taken out on an article in Rolling Stone, written by David Kushner, a white man. The first script — billed as "based on an article by David Kushner" — was written by two other white men. It was picked up by James Franco's production company, for Franco to direct. 

And then Ferguson happened, ushering in #BLM. MeToo broke (and took Franco down), Cardi B. became a suburban icon (now your mom knows what "trap" means), #OscarsSoWhite gained traction. Not just Twitter but the whole country changed in extraordinary ways, inconceivable five years earlier. 

Those five years interposed between King's thread and A24's movie might have been a bitter wait for King, but in the end they were a blessing. Finally there was buy-in on the idea that women can and should own their own stories. Instead of Franco flattening King's thread into more grist for the Spring Breakers mill, Black director Janicza Bravo (Lemon) and Black writer Jeremy O. Harris ("Slave Play") were brought in. 

And they told the story the way it should be told — from behind Zola's eyes, not in front of the eyes of the men who wanted to profit from her; as an experience lived, not performed and observed.

This review first appeared in the Orlando Weekly, an affiliated publication.

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