SUNDANCE REVIEW: ‘Zola’ (2020) Proves the Power of Sex Workers Telling Their Own Stories

Rating: 4 out of 4.

“A revolutionary way to talk about sex workers, many of whom have been historically largely excluded from their own narratives in Hollywood

Do you remember where you were when Zola- also known as A’Ziah King- dropped her Twitter thread and instantly became the most iconic viral “story time” sensation ever? It was the definition of a cultural reset. Anyone familiar with the story knows that its twists and turns are so unbelievable that there was much speculation about the truth behind it. Of course, everyone and their mom had questions and opinions about what the world’s first feature film based on a Twitter thread would look like. If you are unfamiliar with the plot, the thread tells the story of two strippers who become fast friends. Zola (Taylour Paige) and Stefani (Riley Keough) take a bizarre road trip to Tampa together, accompanied by Stefani’s boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and “roommate” (Colman Domingo). However, Stefani is less than honest with Zola about the purpose of the trip, and things spiral out of control from there.  

What is so remarkable about Zola is the way director and co-writer, Janicza Bravo, authentically captures the unique voice of Zola’s original text, which would not be possible without King’s extensive contributions to the film. One of the biggest questions on my mind going into this film was “How are the filmmakers going to fit a 144 Tweet long thread into a three-act story structure?” The answer is obvious with hindsight: it’s a lot stronger for the film to let the narrative flow in Zola’s unique voice, rather than try and force it to conform into traditional story structures. New content requires new form. The way that time pauses, warps, and bends back over itself is more honest to Zola’s personal experience and creates a more engaging story for the audience. While Zola’s unconventional story structure is ultimately a strength, the film’s only weakness is that it ends in the middle of the story, before even the Twitter thread ends, which leaves Zola and Stefani’s story on an inconclusive note. 

Source: Getty Images

Zola’s distinct strength is its musical, rhythmic quality, enveloping the audience in Zola’s perspective as things start to go south; most notable is when the crew pulls up to a seedy motel. Zola’s focus is on two kids playing basketball, which rhythmically beats like an anxious heartbeat; this nervous atmosphere is only emphasized by the auditory decision to drown out the dialogue and focus on the beat of the basketball. Even the ways that Zola thinks and speaks are musical: whether she is expressing her feelings directly to the audience through voice-over or navigating through different spaces, each pause in between her words, each exclamation or click of the tongue tells its own story. 

Zola as a cinematic character is a larger than life figure who never apologizes for asserting her agency, even as she quickly becomes  hostage and witness to a seriously dangerous situation. When Stefani is kidnapped, Zola is blamed: “You were supposed to protect her!” admonishes the pimp. “And who is supposed to take care of me?” Zola defiantly responds, knowing that black women are often harmed in the name of protecting white women. The film is aware that black women are often told to be strong, to fend for themselves, while white women are fawned over and deemed innocent or weak. No doubt this film will garner much pearl-clutching from audiences and critics, but extracting morality from Zola – or any film for that matter – is a futile and boring way to engage with cinema.  

Inevitably, Zola will be compared to last year’s Hustlers because they are both films based on true stories about sex workers in a scenario that gets out of hand. However, there is one important difference between the two films: the real Zola was not only included in the entire process, but she was also the lifeblood of Bravo’s project. Whereas with Hustlers, Jennifer Lopez’s production company is being sued $40 million by the woman who inspired Lopez’s character due to her story being used without her permission. Hustlers is not by any means a bad film but Zola is a much more interesting film, mainly because its power comes from  details that would not be possible without King’s much needed contributions. Bravo fully admits to this and even credits King as a writer and producer to the film. She said she “needed Zola’s blessing…every step of the way, they had to work hand in hand.” This is a revolutionary way to talk about sex workers, many of whom have been historically largely excluded from their own narratives in Hollywood. 

Zola will mark director Bravo’s third time at the Sundance Film Festival. Along with her own work, the Atlanta episode she directed (“Juneteenth”) proves that she has cemented herself as an innovative new voice in American cinema going into the next decade.

Dir: Janicza Bravo

Writers: Janicza Bravo, A’Ziah King, David Kushner, Jeremy O’Harris

Prod: Kara Baker, Allison Rose Carter, Dave Franco, Elizabeth Haggard, David Hinojosa, Vince Jolivette, A’Ziah King, Jennifer Konawal, David Kushner, Christine Vachon, Gia Walsh

Cast: Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo

Release: A24 has yet to release a wide distribution date

Feature Image courtesy of A24