Imagine reading an outrageous story on Twitter. A fresh voice, witty quips and a story about two strippers that rings authenic but is unbeliavable in it’s audacity. Now imagine seeing that Twitter Feed as a fully-realized film, in all it’s ludicrious twists and turns but also it’s sketchy, sex traffic/kidnapping elements. What may have seemed darkly comic is felt viscerally when transferred to the big screen. Violence against women is never funny.
The genesis of the film “Zola” was 148-tweets in 2015. The wild tale that began, “Okay listen up. This story long. So I met this white bitch at Hooters…” was about a stripper’s journey from Detroit to Florida. It may have been more fun to read than to watch. This inventive film is told from the perspective of the stripper, Aziah “Zola” Wells, who agrees to travel to Tampa to earn big cash at a club with a new stripper friend. The resulting journey is a set-up to sex work. Along for the ride is a violent Nigerian pimp (Colman Domingo) who intimidates and threatens Zola. Taylour Paige gives Zola a foreboding silence; she projects Zola’s betrayal with her expressive eyes and attitude. If looks could kill, she’d be the only one left standing.
During the long journey, Zola is stuck with Stefani’s bonehead boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) who gets mixed up with gangsters. He’s played for comic relief and tries to kill himself by leaping off a balcony. From the second floor. Her new “friend” turns out to be trouble with a capital T. Riley Keough gives Stefani an entire black-appropriation — corn rows & ghetto talk and even a mixed race baby. Stefani’s keen to make as much money as she can and is willing to go to great lengths to please the pimp. There’s an amusing montage of a wide array of naked men. Stefani seems to take them all on with little complaint, even agreeing to a gang bang.
The setting jumps between a seedy strip club to seedy motel rooms to a fancier hotel. There, instead of sex work, there’s kidnapping and standoffs and the two girls are used as pawns. One horrific scene has the pimp offering Zola up as a sex slave and he encourages the gangster brandishing a gun to feel Zola up. All the while, Stefani has been knocked unconscious and is lying in a closet. But then, like the energizer sex bunny, Stefani springs to life and off they go running thru hotel hallways and past the small person drinking by the pool bidding them a good evening. Bizarre.
As the story progresses, the casualties mount. One dead body, one bleeding skull, and two women who’ve made some serious cash but have now put their families and lives in jeopardy. Then in an odd twist, the film jolts into Stefani’s account and Zola is transformed into a flirty waitress/stripper w/straw in her hair. What?! Then she’s begging to go on this trip and shows up wearing a garbage bag with her clothes in another garbage bag. The film ends with you questioning which part of this saga was true and what was an exaggeration for entertainment’s sake.
Aziah “Zola” Wells says she made her tweets “darkly funny while preserving the gist of what happened”. And she has no regrets. “I made people who probably wouldn’t want to hear a sex trafficking story want to be a part of it,” she says, “because it was entertaining.” That’s the one thing each of the participants agree upon: the real story behind #TheStory, of how young girls and women are held against their will by sex traffickers, is more fucked up and unconscionable than any one person could invent. “It’s common and it happens,” Zola tells me, as she cracks open a crab leg at Hooters. “It could happen to anyone.” from the David Kushner interview, Nov 2015, “Rolling Stones” Zola Tells All: the Real Story behind the Greatest Stripper Saga ever Tweeted
“Zola” is a film where I can admire the audacity of the direction by Janicza Bravo, the expressive acting by Taylour Paige, and the unique vision to bring this to life. And not like the movie. A little coda at the end of the film to note that there were 4.5 million victims of sex trafficing worldwide when this “adventure” was tweeted would have been a good choice.