Zola spawned from a series of tweets in October 2015 from A’Ziah “Zola” King. This film may be the first of its kind to have its source material from Twitter, but I am sure it won’t be the last. Although I missed those viral tweets that day, week, month, etc., it was compelling enough (and viral enough) to fatten the tale out to a screenplay and an 87-minute film.
Zola (Taylour Paige) works at a restaurant but also as a pole-dancing stripper. While working in the restaurant, she meets Stefani (Riley Keough) and her friend. For some reason, Stefani can pick out that maybe she and Zola could be besties and strike up at least what could be described as an acquaintance friendship. Not long after meeting, Stefani hits up Zola for possibly going on a road trip to Tampa, Florida, to make some serious money stripping in the clubs down there. Being young and assumingely adventurous, Zola takes Stefani up on the offer. A Mercedes G-Wagon pulls up with Stefani, her boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun), and another guy whose name we really never find out but is referred to as X (Colman Domingo). After the long drive to a shady motel, the story gets crazy and is anything but a trip to make some good money stripping.
Zola is not a girl-trip film, having maybe started that way; as soon as Zola opens the door and sits in that G-Wagon, all of that has disappeared. This trip was not what she was expecting, and to be sitting next to a not-so-bright Derek the whole way is more of a nightmare. What sets Zola apart from other films that it could be compared to is the heroic character of Zola. She was naively placed into a situation that could be and was dangerous, but she held to her convictions and standards and did not back down. While she is stuck in this situation by the threat of violence, she takes it upon herself to educate Stefani and be her protector in so many words. Not because she wants to but because she finds herself trapped and deals with the situation as best as she can. She is the type of person who does not take any s**t from anyone, is confident in herself, and knows what she is worth. Zola is more of a strong female character than most films, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that such a character came from female POC co-screenwriter and director, Janicza Bravo. Does the real-life Zola have something to do with that also? Absolutely.
On the other hand, is Stefani, a young woman with very little brains and experience to understand the predicament she has placed Zola and herself in. While Zola may have been naïve about the situation, Stefani is naïve, just as a general character trait. She is not a strong female character, but someone who will do what she is told and will take advantage of other people if she can. She uses her feminine wiles and sex appeal to get her places and money while not having much common sense about how to go about doing this safely and smartly. Her accent is at once grating and quizzical. A close runner-up is her boyfriend Derek, the guy who serves no purpose other than some comedic relief. If there is a human equivalent to nails on a chalkboard, it would be Derek. Both Nicholas Braun and Riley Keough fully embraced the questionable characters and their foolishness.
While fun may not be the best descriptor for Zola, it is a chaotic, wild ride with awkward moments (hello, penises) where its main character doesn’t know what to expect from minute to minute. There may be preconceived notions about this film based on its backstory, but it is worth taking the trip with these characters. Zola herself may be one of my favorite characters of the year so far because she is indeed a strong, female POC lead who takes no gruff and will not be taken advantage of because of how others see her. There is some breaking of the fourth wall and some narration that sets up future events, but both are comical and on point. Come for the viral story; stay for the unexpected in Zola.