Like A’Ziah ‘Zola’ King’s Twitter thread that recounted a rollercoaster weekend in Florida, director Janicza Bravo’s 86-minute minute black comedy-crime drama begins at a point in time and ends without any conclusion. This is a snapshot of life and a one-time escapade that perhaps made for a better social media engagement than it does a movie.
Kings narrative led to a Rolling Stone article that explored more versions of the story, focussing primarily on King’s sex, violence and sex trafficking experience in which she blamed co-traveller and acquaintance Jessica (called Stefani in the film) for the harrowing journey. Their meet-cute happens in a diner over a reference to apples and dance, quickly escalating to a date to dance in a strip club. The Rolling Stones article described King’s retelling as “Spring Breakers meets Pulp Fiction, as told by Nicki Minaj”.
Bravo shows how a day later Zola (Taylour Paige) is on a road trip to Tampa, Florida with two strangers and one girl she has barely known for a day. The driver turns out to be Stefani’s (Riley Keough) pimp, X (Colman Domingo), while the lanky, needy guy in the backseat is her boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun).
The screenplay of Zola takes a she-said-she-said viewpoint just once. Beginning with King’s 148-tweet October 2015 thread that went viral when she tweeted, “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out????????” “It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” In the film we see two girls touching up their hair and make up in a performative way, transforming into projected images of themselves. Later we see Stefani's version as shared on 30 October on Reddit.
Take 148 tweets of 140 characters, fill in some blanks from a magazine article, piece them together and you have a screenplay (Bravo and Jeremy O’Harris) that is ‘mostly’ based on true events, some of which are frightening and dangerous. There’s a pimp, entrapment, guns, strip clubs and a sex trafficking saga. The truth about a murder and a suicide attempt are unproven but the filmmaker chooses to take King’s account, which makes for a more dramatic story.
Abounding in expletives and ethnic slurs, Bravo’s Zola is about characters, unfiltered. They represent a time, a place, a subculture. There’s the way X’s American accent slips when he loses his temper. There are shades of Gasper Noe in the way Bravo builds a sense of impending chaos, frenzy and uses a song-based soundtrack heavy on hip-hop. The scenes move from jaunty and free to disquieting and dark. In one scene Bravo places her camera overhead and shoots the two women in adjoining toilet cubicles. Bravo has said that the scene is a way to adjust the prejudicial lens through which people see black women and white women.
King’s story is well-documented. What sets the film apart is the treatment, keeping social media posts at the centre without ever using speech bubbles or chat boxes. But the characters speak short, sharp lines. Pings, the whistles of a new tweet (subtly underlining King’s original tweet from the 2015 thread), chimes of likes in the background act as a reminder of the origins of this story. This is after all a version as distilled and related by King. It’s her story, which Twitterati dubbed ‘thotyessy’. It’s not an investigative story that sets out to uncover the truth. It begins and ends abruptly, without comment, judgment or postscript.
Zola is on Netflix.