music friday: winterland, january 28, 1973
a hero (asghar farhadi, 2021)

geezer cinema/african-american directors series/film fatales #130: zola (janicza bravo, 2020)

The inspiration for Zola is more interesting than the film itself. The story was told as a Twitter thread which went viral. Rolling Stone ran a piece by David Kushner, "Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted". In that article, Kushner showed that Zola's Twitter story was essentially true. James Franco was involved early in the process of turning the story into a film, but he dropped/was dropped off when he was confronted with sexual harassment charges. Eventually, Janicza Bravo, who had a handful of shorts, one feature, and lots of TV work on her resume, took over as director and co-screenwriter (with Jeremy O. Harris).

Zola is a waitress and part-time pole dancer in Detroit who meets Stefani, another stripper, who convinces Zola to join her on a road trip to Florida, where she says the two can make big bucks stripping. What ensues is a tale of sex trafficking, as Stefani works as a prostitute for a pimp while Zola wonders what she has gotten into. As my wife said, it was a case of "bad decisions on top of bad decisions". The "based on a true story" angle means actions that seem ludicrously pumped-up for sizzle appeal apparently happened. Which doesn't make the accusations of bad decisions wrong, but there is no denying it affects how we view the characters and their actions.

Bravo does some interesting things turning tweets into cinema, and Taylour Paige is excellent as Zola. Riley Keough is an effective choice to play Stefani. Stefani is a white character made especially unlikable in the way she emulates what she thinks is "black". (The IMDB tells us that Keough "had to get special training on how to play a white woman trying very offensively to sound a certain type of 'black.'") As the IMDB also reminds us, Keough's casting as a white person appropriating black culture is a bit ironic, given that her grandfather was Elvis Presley.

Colman Domingo (Euphoria) as the pimp is friendly and menacing when needed, and he is another positive aspect to the movie. Still, while I feel odd complaining about the actions of characters when those actions mostly actually happened, nonetheless Zola isn't as much a warning about the dangers of sex trafficking as it is an example of people who are just clueless enough to get into trouble.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

[Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies]


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