Cinema Styles: Zola tweets its way to top

BY BOBBY STYLES

Zola is Janicza Bravo’s intense and idiosyncratic 2021 film, and the story it tells is based on a Twitter thread from 2015. In October of that year, a woman named A'Ziah “Zola” King shared a story on the social media platform. It immediately went viral and this movie is an adaptation of the story she told. Zola herself was an exotic dancer living in Detroit, and she was invited on an unexpected road trip to Tampa by another dancer she had just met. There was the promise of a big payday in Florida, and Zola took the offer, but the situation turned out to be much more dangerous and complicated than she had initially expected. 

Janicza Bravo has been quietly directing projects under the radar for more than a decade, but Zola marks her introduction to a much wider audience. Bravo co-wrote the script with acclaimed playwright and fashion icon Jeremy O. Harris, and her persona as a director is that of an assured risk-taker. Bravo isn't timid about taking the movie to its weirdest limits, and making the audience uncomfortable during various scenes. She likes to playfully provoke the viewer and challenge them with the art she creates. 

Zola is a bizarre road trip comedy-drama hybrid in which everything that can go wrong does go wrong. It daringly shifts tones several times, switching between hilarious ridiculousness and the seriousness of individuals being stuck in a situation that could prove to be hazardous to their health. The movie constantly balances between these divergent moods; its unexpected events leaving the characters and the audience in a constant state of anxiety about what will happen next. It's a story told with bold confidence. 

One of the most unique aspects of Zola is it's the first movie to originate from a story that was told on a social media platform. King’s 148-tweet thread quickly caught the attention of people like producer Missy Elliott and filmmaker Ava DuVernay. From there it took off. A month later, Rolling Stone magazine did an article about it. Before long, rumors of a film project based on the thread started circulating. Bravo has expertly integrated the chaos of social media, and Twitter specifically, in the tone of Zola. One interesting aspect is every time a “tweet” sound is heard in the film, that indicates a direct quote that was taken from the original Twitter thread. 

Social media is still considered to be a new form of media, and this film’s existence is the natural progression of storytelling in our modern era. A well-told story truly can come from anywhere, as is evident by the intrigue at the center of this one. This movie is completely unique. It blends new ways of telling stories with classic film techniques to create a new concoction of stylized filmmaking. It's both chaotic and controlled, and grows stronger as a work of art with each passing moment it pulls from opposing ideas. 

Zola is an interesting story brought to life by an incredible cast of actors. Taylour Paige rightfully won several acting awards for her performance as the titular character. She's an excellent audience surrogate, as much along for this film’s crazy ride as the viewer. Paige plays Zola with empathy, vigor, and ferocity. She's not afraid to ask for what she's owed, and advocates for herself and others throughout the story. 

Colman Domingo is one of the great character actors working today, and his performance in this movie might be his best one to date. He plays an ill-intentioned man Zola meets in Florida. Domingo has a quiet intensity and passion in his eyes, portraying someone people both trust and fear. Domingo’s villainous performance in this movie is one of its most memorable aspects.

Janicza Bravo is a black woman, and the film’s co-writer is a queer black man. The heads of each department on the film are all women; many of them being people of color. This includes the editor, cinematographer, composer, production designer, and costume designer. The diversity and representation behind the camera matches what’s happening in front of it, and this importance can't be overstated. 

Zola is a confidently-created independent film about the chaos rampant in our modern reality. Janicza Bravo utilizes her boundless bravado and eccentric humor to craft something utterly unique. It's a film that creates and follows its own dreamlike sense of logic. Like a modernized version of an epic poem from several millennia ago, Zola is something fresh and different in a media landscape that often feels like it produces more of the same. It's a movie as unpredictable and unhinged as social media itself, and one the viewer will soon want to retweet to their friends.

Bobby Styles studied Film at UCLA, and worked as an editor and producer on several film, commercial, and music video projects in Los Angeles. He currently teaches the intermediate and advanced Video Production courses in the Multimedia & Technology Academy at Monache High School. His column appears in The Recorder every Tuesday.

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