Zola is, by design, a highly stressful viewing experience.
One of the buzziest films out of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Zola is based on that 2015 viral 144-tweet Twitter thread by Aziah King aka @_zolarmoon, and tells the story of Zola (Hit the Floor's Taylour Paige), a Black woman who gets trapped in a Florida road trip from hell with a white woman named Stefani (Riley Keough) that somehow involves stripping, kidnapping, sex trafficking, guns, and an attempted suicide.
"I read it on Twitter in October 2015 when it came out, and I was immediately obsessed," director and co-writer Janicza Bravo said at the film's Sundance premiere on January 24. "It was so thrilling and compelling to me, the agency and the confidence [of King's voice], that you could set this environment of this film and make it funny and upsetting and stressful, but most of all funny because my space that I feel the most comfortable in is sort of stressful comedy."
Zola, co-written by Slave Play creator Jeremy O. Harris and co-starring Euphoria's Colman Domingo and Succession's Nicholas Braun (think: Cousin Greg in True Religion jeans and a chinstrap beard), has been described by critics as "Spring Breakers for the Twitter era" and a film that "makes Hustlers look like a Disney movie." But the most chaotic thing about it isn't necessarily its frantic camerawork or its mind-blowing plot—it's Keough's full-on appropriation of Black mannerisms and style throughout the film.
As Zola and Stefani journey from Detroit to Tampa (a car ride that includes a Vine-style montage of Keough twerking and Braun rapping Migos' "Hannah Montana") and become entangled in the seedy underbelly of Central Florida nightlife, Keough's Stefani speaks like Bad Bhabie cranked up to an 11, styles her baby hairs, and sports long acrylic nails. Or, as Paige put it at Sundance, "She's in blackface the whole movie."
"Jeremy and Janicza [put] a lot of this character on the page already. The words she was using, the way she was speaking," Keough, who worked with a dialect coach for the role, said at the premiere. "And then the next step was just talking to Janicza about exactly what she wanted from this character. Obviously, appropriation was part of that conversation."
"I wanted it to feel stressful the way those kinds of people feel stressful to me," Bravo said, adding that her notes to Keough—who also happens to be Elvis Presley's granddaughter—often involved asking her to heighten the accent to make it even "more stressful."
White women appropriating Black culture is, of course, nothing new. Recent examples include everyone from Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande to random teens on TikTok. And the immediate assumptions in 2015 that King's tweets were inherently "ghetto" and beyond belief struck Bravo.
"Most of the articles written about her story questioned the validity of it, and I think women, women of color particularly, experience this when you speak your truth. The validity of the thing that you were talking about comes in question," Bravo said, adding, "There was this idea of like, 'This story's coming from the ghetto.' And Aziah was like, 'Actually, I'm from the suburbs. If you heard her talk and Taylour talk and I talk, our cadence is sort of similar."
Zola was originally slated to be directed by James Franco, but he bowed out following multiple accusations of sexual misconduct in 2018, and Bravo (who'd found success at Sundance in 2017 with her "purposefully odd" comedy Lemon) came on board.
From its electric opening line—"Y'all wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch here fell out?"—the film, like the original tweets, is told from Zola's perspective, and her growing exhaustion and disgust with Stefani's behavior is palpable. But about three-quarters through the film, Bravo switches perspective for a few minutes and we see a recap of Stefani's version of events. The segment is based on a real-life Reddit post by the woman who inspired Stefani's character, and here we're shown a startling alternate universe. According to Stefani, Zola is literal trash. A hodgepodge of racist stereotypes who wears disposable pedicure flip flops and a dress fashioned out of a garbage bag.
"I think there was a version of this movie directed by someone else where Taylor and Riley are swapped,” Bravo said, not necessarily referring to Franco. “And it was very important to me in my body to make sure that Taylor was what I needed her to be, which was some version of myself, and that Riley was a version of a nightmare."
A24 has yet to announce a theatrical release date for Zola, but it's expected to receive a wide release later this year.