I’ve read the Twitter thread that Zola is based on multiple times throughout the years. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s a series of 148 Tweets published by Aziah “Zola” Wells one faithful day in October 2015. The thread is fascinating for several reasons, from the fact that it revolutionized the way stories were told on Twitter, to the fact that the story itself is insane. Imbued with charisma, Zola tells Twitter to strap in because “it’s kind of long but full of suspense.” And that it was. The tale later became hailed as the greatest stripper story to grace social media. Now, that story is brought to the big screen from A24 and director Janicza Bravo.
Zola (Taylour Paige) details how she was invited down to Florida to pole dance by a sex worker named Stefani (Riley Keough) after they met at her waitressing job and became fast friends by bonding over dancing. Zola agrees to go to Tampa with Stefani, her boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) and her “roommate”, played by Colman Domingo, but things go south when it’s revealed that this roommate is actually Stefani’s pimp and Stefani begins to “trap” (slang for prostitution).
As incredible and jaw-dropping as the thread becomes, with the film filled with these twist and turns as they navigate this precarious situation, the story is ultimately about sex trafficking. Zola was lured into a dangerous situation by someone she considered a friend, and could have very easily become trapped in a life she did not consent to. Stefani, on the other hand, was already a victim of the system in many ways, but even then still involved Zola knowing the harm it could bring her.
Zola as a film explores various concepts, whether that be female solidarity and autonomy, the impact of social media as a lens that alters our view of the world, or even racial dynamics. There were fears that Zola’s story would be warped and misdirected when the project was first announced, but Bravo, the director, does not let alternate accounts of the story, meant to discredit Zola, muddle her tale. In the film, she takes special care to portray how Stefani later has no problem weaponizing racist stereotypes against Zola to protect her image, even though both Stefani and her boyfriend slather on a blaccent and use AAVE recreationally. While bringing attention to the racial dynamics between Zola and Stefani are enough to say something meaningful about the issue, the same cannot be said for other aspects of the film.
There is a strong visual language and use of symbolism in the film, and it’s most often utilized to compare Zola and Stefani. While it is often dreamlike and trance-enduing to mirror their similarities, it is most striking when it shows how they differ, and the biggest way they differ is that Zola has self-respect and tries to take care of herself. In a story predominantly concerned with sex trafficking, this is perhaps not a great can of worms to leave open. Is Stefani’s lack of self-respect a byproduct of the time she’s spent being pimped and degraded as a prostitute? Or is the fact she has no self-respect what landed her in her subservient position (contrasted by how we see Zola try to avoid the same fate?) The latter is a bit of a victim-blamey position to take, and I hope that was not the film’s intention, but it’s hard to form a conclusion when the interpretation of these ideas primarily come from visual cues and are left somewhat open ended.
Also, it’s surprising how much of the film dedicates itself to the impact of social media when, truthfully, social media is not a huge part of the story. Yes, the story can attribute its popularity to Twitter, but Twitter itself has no place in the story. The beginning of the film is the only time we see Zola interact with social media, and that’s when her interest is focused solely on her phone after she meets Stefani and through their interactions online, she agrees to go to Florida with her. Throughout the rest of the film, there are often visual and audio cues to indicate references to Twitter or Instagram, and simplest way to interpret these references are “social media lies”, which is basic at best. There are more meaningful ways to explore social media’s place in this narrative, especially considering the fact that the Zola story itself is a bit of a lie.
In an interview with the Rolling Stone, Zola has admitted to embellishing parts of the story not only for the sake of drama, but also due to the medium she was telling it through. By tweeting out the story in parts and getting reactions and feedback from people in real-time, their attention definitely inspired her to make it more of a spectacle. Leaning into that aspect would’ve been a great way to not only deconstruct how we perform on social media and understand why the subsequent attention is special to us. It could’ve been an extension on the danger of misdirecting attention to falsely cultivated images and personas beyond the film’s existing allusions.
Zola is definitely meant to be a comedy, but there’s something off about that classification. It’s juggling many heavy themes and takes place during an extremely dangerous time for the main character. While the tale is outlandish and at some moments comical, it’s the same kind of wincing laugh you find yourself making to try and ease the tension during a stressful situation. It’s laughter in the face of tragedy, laughter to cope with the amount of ridiculousness you find yourself in. The original thread had a lot of charisma and enthusiasm that is lacking in the film, and for good reason. It’s very messy to make a story about sex trafficking into a laugh-out-loud comedy, and that’s why Zola was more reserved than its source material. Zola in many ways examines its issues through the use of humor, but lauding it as fun film seems to be a misnomer.
While Zola’s original thread wraps up nicely, this adaptation doesn’t. That could’ve been an opportunity to come down concretely on any of the issues and question it raises, but alas, Zola keeps you pondering. Perhaps it would’ve been more of a satisfying ending if there was more of a linear increase of dramatic tension that finished in catharsis, but a lot of that tension was lost from the inclusion of comedic elements. The ending of the film highlights the holes in the rest of the narrative, but all things considered, it isn’t a bad ending, just underwhelming.
Zola is stylistically dazzling with strong performances from the main cast and intriguing direction. Strong visual language elevates a crazy story into something meaningful to ruminate on, and while it certainly raises questions, it would’ve been nice to explore them more thoroughly. All things considered, it does its source material justice, and that’s adequate praise.