[Content warning: The film features sexual violence and the following review discusses sexual violence.]
During the 2020 election, candidates like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Kamala Harris were taken to account for their support of Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act/Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (FOSTA/SESTA), a set of laws created to curb online sex trafficking, with a focus on child sex trafficking. With public sentiment towards consensual sex work becoming more favorable, critics argued that a lack of clarity in the way the laws were written—and removing online platforms for sex work—led to more dangerous working conditions.
The now-defunct website Backpage.com found itself the representative for online sex work in the political arena, and now finds itself a supporting player in Zola, a film that indirectly challenges the naive notion that without legalization and regulation casual consumers and supporters of sex work could ever realistically distinguish between willing consent and coerced consent.
Originally debuting at Sundance in 2020, the theatrical release delayed due to COVID-19, the film Zola is heavily inspired by a legendary series of 148 tweets by A’Ziah “Zola” King who recounts a wild strippers weekend with a new friend that quickly goes sideways. Themes of power, ownership, and blurry consent play out both onscreen and off, in the rush by the press and Hollywood to commodify King’s story, which was passed through several hands including James Franco’s, before ultimately landing with director Janicza Bravo and writer Jeremy O. Harris to create the film.
While Bravo and Harris could have chosen to sit heavily in the weight of this cautionary tale, this deftly written road-trip story is held up by a scaffolding of excitement and mirth, channeling the zest of being young, hot, and out of fucks to give. When title character Zola (Taylor Paige) meets Stefani (Riley Keough) and they vibe instantly, the magic of the moment is punctuated by chimes and whistles. The subsequent sound design of the film smartly employs cell phone clicks and alerts, and sampled orchestral music as the engine of the subconscious—revving up in moments of satisfaction, and tinkling and pinging like psychic red flags in moments of danger.
The opening sequence of Zola and Stefani, glittering and primping in mirrors, visually tips its hand towards the larger ruse through the juxtaposition of Zola’s Blackness, and Stefani’s performative Blackness, as she mimics Zola in slicking back baby hairs with a toothbrush. Bravo deftly charts the comic arc as Zola moves from feeling the deep connection of sisterhood, to pinpointing the exact moment when Stefani’s nonstop “Blaccent,” microaggressions, and over-the-top posturing stop being cute and start becoming hella grating. Harris additionally tracks this dichotomy with the intentional use of the N-word and “bitch,” both initially tossed around casually and playfully by various characters; later the camera freezes on the moments when the intent and impact changes their meaning irrevocably.
Though Zola (and Stefani) are ultimately victims, Paige plays the role from a place of confidence and flippancy, reclaiming agency through survival. She grounds this unbelievable story through her own authentic reactions, serving as proxy for the audience through nonstop “WTF” moments. The cinematography centers the female gaze in subtle ways, such as establishing strip club shots that focus on the power of sexuality and the humor of the performance rather than the traditional extended boob shots from a male client’s perspective. In moments of vulnerability, the camera turns away from the women to examine the fragility of the male body (including male frontal nudity) during acts of sex with extreme power imbalances. Keough plays the complex role of Stefani masterfully; she combines the role of victim and perpetrator beneath the facade of a young woman who has completely lost her own identity underneath the performance.
Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and X (Colman Domingo) are perfectly paired as two hilariously tragic alternate poles of toxic masculinity and power, both purporting that they care for Stefani, yet ultimately serving their own emotional or financial interests. Derrek’s sad-sack desperation is tragically, painfully funny, and Domingo’s portrayal of X’s ridiculous overconfidence, veering into terror at a moment’s notice, both round out this ensemble of wildness.
Bravo’s examination of this subculture could have been dismissive, yet her treatment of the material lends the characters an unexpected level of respect. It seems that unfortunately since the Sundance screening, the saturation on screen has been toned down from candy-colored hyper-surrealism in favor of a more muted, grainy color palette—or perhaps that’s just my imagination. Ultimately, Zola is the perfect summer film; it’s a freewheeling joyride through the seamy side of stripping that balances the thrill of voyeurism with the dangerous reality that beautiful women who entertain face with a wink and a smile. v