‘Zola’ Is a Movie for Black Women

“You wanna hear a story about why me & this bi*ch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” On October 27, 2015, Twitter users became enraptured in A’ziah “Zola” King’s epic stripper/ kidnapping tale. It was roughly 144 tweets that chronicled an insane weekend that King spent in Tampa, Florida where she was supposed to be making some money stripping in one of the clubs. Unfortunately for her — but fortunately for us — what commenced was an adventure in grit, tenacity, and Black girl magic that desperately needed a cinematic retelling.

With Lemon director Janicza Bravo at the helm — Zola comes to life in a swirl of textured visuals and a loud ASMR-type audio mix. A restrained but commanding Taylour Paige steps into Zola’s shoes. The part-time waitress/ stripper is first enchanted by Stefani’s (a stellar Riley Keough) flirty banter and friendlessness, when she shows up at the barbeque joint Zola works at. The two become fast friends, pledging to head to Tampa to make some quick money dancing. Unfortunately, Stefani isn’t all that transparent about what the weekend will entail. As quickly as she was dazzled by Stefani, Zola becomes irritated by her carelessness and willingness to dive headfirst into truly catastrophic situations.

‘Zola’ is electric

Zola was always going to be electric. King’s tweets about the most insane weekend of her life were all the insurance filmgoers needed. However, what Bravo adds — an ode to Black women, acknowledging incessant cultural appropriation by white women, and the weariness that Black women wear on their faces as they navigate the world day in and day out is what elevates the story. Told almost solely from the Black female gaze, Zola will speak to Black women who are still regularly shoved to the sidelines in narrative features. However, from the spirals of baby hair to the squatting over toilet seats, the nuances of Blackwomanhood are alive and well here.

Still, Zola isn’t without its issues. The constant chirping of phone alerts and the always fantastic Colman Domingo’s startling awful West-Indian accent could easily shock anyone out of the narrative. Likewise, while the Florida backdrop is as picturesque and dazzling as Zola and Stefani’s outfits, the script co-written by Bravo and Slave Play scribe Jeremy O. Harris doesn’t always uphold the weight of the adventure.

‘Zola’ is a pseudo-buddy comedy with a Black female gaze

The second half of the film doesn’t boast a narrative structure as sound as the first half. There seems to be ample time and circumstance for Zola to escape from the whole ordeal. Also, though the film was shot before actor Jason Mitchell was accused of sexual harassment, it was still jarring to see him in a predatory role.

Still, the pseudo-buddy comedy works for a number of reasons. Paige is stellar as a fed-up Black woman trying to stack her money only to be dragged into some nonsense and used for her brilliance and quick-thinking. After being essentially kidnapped by Stefani and held hostage by her pimp (Domingo), Zola is the only one looking out for Stefani’s wellbeing while keeping her emotionally fragile boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) at bay.

With King’s tweets holding up the narrative, Zola sparkles because of the brilliant performances and the sheer insanity of it all.

Zola premiered at the Sundance Film Festival Jan. 24, 2020.