Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Zola, or: It’s a Long Story (But Full of Suspense)

Based on a viral Twitter thread about a woman’s mostly true story of a weekend in Tampa gone awry, this week’s pick continues the monthly focus on films directed by Black women. This one did get quite a bit of hype leading up to its release–does it live up to its reputation?

The Film:



Janicza Bravo

The Premise:

After joining a weekend road trip to earn some extra money, waitress and part-time stripper Zola recounts how it all went wrong because of a backstabbing witch named Stefani.

The Ramble:

By day, savvy Zola is a waitress charming customers while ignoring the problematic and overtly racist things they say. When she waits on Stefani, a young woman who is over-the-top yet fascinating, Zola doesn’t realize this chance encounter will lead to a weekend on the books as one of the wildest she’s experienced.

Bonding over their disdain for fake people (later confirmed as a giant red flag) and their part-time work dancing in strip clubs, the two swap numbers and begin messaging each other non-stop. Based on her initial connection with Stefani, Zola joins her on a road trip to Tampa only days later despite rather hazy details surrounding the event. As an aside, the film incorporates texting & using social media on phones in rather interesting ways that go beyond the standard *box with notification appears onscreen.* The weekend should be an easy way to make some quick money dancing…keyword being “should.”

A Black woman in a form-fitting pink outfit stands reflected in a mirror, refracted into 5 reflections.

Along for the ride are Stefani’s boyfriend and her supposed roommate, a man who is initially friendly yet gives off sketchy vibes from miles away. The group stays in a rather seedy motel during their first night in Tampa. Or, rather, Stefani’s boyfriend Derrek will stay in the motel while the others head to a strip club. Derrek seems concerned about Stefani, waiting anxiously in the motel until meeting up with a local man who promises to show him around Tampa.

At the strip club, where tips are okay but nowhere close to the quick, easy cash Stefani promised, Zola becomes increasingly suspicious about all of her acquaintances’ motives. Learning that Stefani’s roommate X is her pimp isn’t a complete shock to Zola, but realizing that he expects Zola to do sex work that evening does catch her off-guard.

Concerned for Stefani’s well-being, and a bit morbidly curious to see how things will unfold, Zola stays around as clients from the now shut down site Backpage arrive for sex. When Zola learns that X has set a rate of $150 per transaction, which Stefani won’t even see, she insists on increasing the rate. Not necessarily to help either X or Stefani, but on the principle that sex work should be worth more.

A Black woman and white woman stand in front of a mirror, fixing their hair.

Having streamlined Stefani’s sex work, X insists that Zola stay around and continue to make money for him. Derrek, on the other hand, is distraught. Posting Stefani’s Backpage details on Facebook in an attempt to “save” her, Derrek finds himself very much on X’s bad side.

As Zola and Stefani are sent into increasingly disturbing and dangerous scenarios in service of X’s bank account, it’s not such a much a question of what will happen, but how dramatic it’s going to get.

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

The chaos of the characters, their questionable choices, and the wild circumstances they’re thrown into all make for an attention-grabbing series of twists and turns. Some of the ways we examine sex trafficking and victimization are particularly fascinating. Stefani is both victim and victimizer, and her behavior as a woman who is trapped in a pattern of abuse doesn’t necessarily make her likeable. On top of this, there are so many racist encounters Zola experiences that remind us of the problematic racial dynamics between Stefani and Zola–after all, a white woman intentionally misleading a Black woman into a dangerous situation.

Taylour Paige and Riley Keough deserve the most credit for their roles in this film, depicting characters who simultaneously feel exaggerated and real. All of our leads are great, honestly, and I really appreciate the Greg Hirsch vibes Nicholas Braun is channeling for the sort of well-meaning but clueless Derrek.

If there’s a drawback here, it’s the scaled-back commentary from Zola. Her voice coming through in sarcastic commentary (much like that of the Twitter thread) provide the best humor of the film, and I wish we’d gotten more of it. Likely to let the suspense of some of the more tense moments land, the opportunity for comedy is dialed back. We do contend with some serious issues like sex trafficking and some of the extremely unglamorous elements of performing sex work, though in a more matter-of-fact than judgmental way.

I admittedly mostly follow award nominations so I can complain about them, so I’ll continue that trend. This should have gotten at least a best director nod for taking risks and telling a unique story well. There are a lot of clever scenes and camera angles focused on mirrors, image, and deception that look great on camera while underlining these themes throughout the story. I’m particularly aggravated when contrasting this film with recent releases I found boring AF like Belfast and Nightmare Alley that largely played it safe and got quite a lot of Oscar love regardless. *eyeroll*

Would my blog wife join this one for the ride or take the wheel and leave it to hitchhike back home? Read her review (at her new site) to find out!