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Source: A24 / @Zola
A’Ziah King‘s 2015 viral Twitter thread is one of those situations that you’ll always remember where you were when you first saw it. For me, it was a breezy October day in New York City. I was taking my usual 45-minute subway commute from Brooklyn to lower Manhattan when I scrolled across a random Tweet that led me to the craziest story I’d ever seen. “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this b**** fell out?,” the Tweet read. “It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” And just like that…A’Ziah King’s journey as Zola began.
Fast forward six years later and Zola’s “stranger- than-fiction saga,” which King told in a series of now-iconic viral Tweets, is coming to the big screen. Written by writer-director Janicza Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O. Harris, the film stars Taylour Paige as Zola, a Detroit Hooters waitress who befriends a customer, Stefani (played by Riley Keough). Similar to the Twitter thread, Zola follows the girls as they embark on a wild weekend of partying in Florida. Except what was supposed to be a few days of “hoeism” quickly turns into an unbelievable 2-day saga where they encounter a Nigeran pimp named X (played by Colman Domingo), Stefani’s idiot boyfriend, and some crazy, shady guys from Tampa. Sure, it sounds catastrophic, but this story isn’t meant to be that – at least on the women’s part. In fact, according to a press release, the film and the real events it’s based on are “an empowering tale of female agency and take-charge determination in the face of male oppression,” and that’s a story we can get behind.
On the surface, Zola is a tale about two women who turn otherwise terrifying events into something that’s hilarious, fun, and as Black Twitter called it, a “Thotyssey.” But at its core, Zola is a celebration of female sexuality, freedom, and empowerment and comes during a time when society is reckoning with the way it subjugates women, especially women of color. “I love what Janicza has done in the film where it’s like even the idea of seeing men objectified. You don’t see the female body and all its glory… you see men, graphically. But also the film is sort of like a graphic novel in some way. I think that’s empowering, too,” Domingo excitedly explained to me. “So, I think you see the [female empowerment] lens in every single way. You have a very strong female sensibility about this film that’s about these strong, interesting, charismatic, kooky, weird, females. I think that’s rare. We don’t usually see that lens. So, I think that’s smart and that’s why I think I understood what my role was in it – it was to be the manipulator, to be the disrupter in some way, shape, or form. But also to provide, hopefully, a safe space for my female counterparts to do the work they need to do.”
It turns out that telling Zola through the female empowerment lens was an intentional precedent set by Bravo at the start of the film’s production, as she felt it was important to give this generation a film about a strong, powerful Black woman who’s smart and comfortable in her skin. “When Jeremy and I started working on it there were two cinematic questions I asked,” she told me. “One was, ‘site films where a Black woman has been in the lead, had agency and been comfortable in her sexuality?’ and we both found ourselves looking to Pam Grier. And then the other question was, ‘what are films you can site where you’ve seen Black women and white women being friends?’ and all we have is Clueless. We have Pam Grier movies. We have Coffee, Foxy Brown, Jackie Brown, and Clueless and that was our reference point for where we had seen these dynamics before. I felt we needed to have a contemporary reference. I mean, Pam Grier in 70s Blaxploitation films can’t be our last and if Jackie Brown is going to be the last then it can’t have just been made by Quentin Tarantino.”
Harris continued, “one of the other things we talked about a lot was how we wanted to use sexuality with these women. Because something that was loud when we were looking at all these lists was how few of these movies have been authored by Black people. Let alone a Black woman. Let alone a woman. I’m sure you’ve probably guessed the answer is zero,” he said in between laughs. “I asked Janicza what was important to her and what wasn’t and I think something that was important was how can we have a movie that’s fully embodying female sexuality where the only nudity we see is from men?” And in a society where we’ve started to come to terms with the way in which the sexuality of women is portrayed in the media, this film couldn’t come at a better time.
In my opinion, that’s what makes the Zola so great: it’s the way Bravo and Harris saw the power of women and sexuality in a story that started out the complete opposite, the way Domingo used his character to uplift his female costars Paige and Keough, and the candid way in which King shared her experience with the world in the first place. “I’ve always been so vocal and candid with my experience and my sexuality so sharing is just a given with me,” King told me. “Seeing it in film form is crazy because I actually lived it.”
Zola hit the big screen on June 30th.