ZOLA, Modern Storytelling, and Strippers on Screen

Zola' Review: Twitter? I Hardly Know Her! - The New York Times
Janicza Bravo | EW.com

Based on a true story told in a popular twitter thread containing 148 tweets written by Detroit waitress A’Ziah “Zola” King in October 2015. The story, which begins with “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this b—- here fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” quickly went viral, garnering the recognition of people such as Missy Elliott, Solange and Ava DuVernay. About a month later, Rolling Stone magazine published an article interviewing people involved in the story.

James Franco was originally attached to direct, produce, and star in the film. – what happened?

James Franco took his producer credit off the film due to the sexual harassment charges that he received.  In June 2018, it was announced Janicza Bravo would direct the film, replacing Franco, while A24 would distribute.

The Rolling Stone articles author David Kushnner described the tone saying “It reads like Spring Breakers meets Pulp Fiction, as told by Nicki Minaj,” but The Ringer’s Justin Charity adds to this description when talking about the  film adaptation, saying It’s Training Day for strippers.”

It’s an a24 production which always comes with a bit of a grittier edge, and the editor is Joi McMillon, whose name you might recognize from her Oscar-nominated work on Moonlight. & season five of Girls together.

The story goes: Zola (Taylour Paige) meets Stefani (Riley Keough) during her shift at Hooters, and Stefani recruits Zola into a road trip to dance at clubs in Tampa. Zola joins Stefani, her boyfriend Derek, and her so-called “roommate” X on the road, only to discover the false pretext for this journey: Zola and Stefani aren’t in Tampa just to dance, they’re in town to sell sex. And X, far from being anyone’s roommate, turns out to be Stefani’s pimp. For the rest of the trip, Zola struggles to break free from this wild and dysfunctional crew as they constantly risk getting each other killed.

Small details are changed in the film, but the story remains the same… Jarrett is changed to Derek, Z is turned to X and Hooters is replaced with a Western BBQ restaurant due to clearance issues

However they cleverly pay homage to Zola’s actual place of work when she cosplays as a Hooters girl in one of her performance outfits

To prepare for the role of Zola, Taylour Paige, who is a native of Inglewood, Calif., worked at Crazy Girls on Sunset and La Brea as a stripper for a month and actually took her clothes off onstage. Paige said the job proved both beneficial as research and as a source of income. She said, “I actually really needed the money. I was like, ‘Fuck it. Why don’t I just go in undercover and see what this is like?'” It turned out to be much more of an emotionally shaping experience than she anticipated. “I just wanted to have a sense of agency before I left to go do the movie, and what better place than working in a strip club where it’s eat or be eaten? I didn’t want to look like an actor trying to dance, I didn’t want to look like a dancer trying to strip, I wanted to look like this person in the given circumstances who works at a restaurant and also dances.” She added she also wanted to be “completely uninhibited, with no judgment.”

Riley Keough’s portrayal of Stefani is supposed to make the audience squirm. As co-star Taylour Paige put it, Keough’s “in blackface” for the whole film, complete with a blaccent. Keough made it clear that cultural appropriation was a huge part of the conversation between herself and director Janicza Bravo. During Riley Keough’s 2021 interview with Sam Sanders on National Public Radio, Sanders reported that Keough “had to get special training on how to play a white woman trying very offensively to sound a certain type of ‘black.'”

There is an interesting historical resonance to the idea of Riley Keough playing a white person who appropriates the trappings of black culture and sound for her own advancement. Keogh is a granddaughter of Elvis Presley, the Rock and Roll legend who has become probably the most visible example of the widespread practice in the early days of Rock of white musicians appropriating black music and culture without acknowledging their dept to black culture (in a 2017 essay for NPR, K. Tempest Bradford writes, “Presley’s success was undoubtedly driven by the material he appropriated from black musicians.”) One famous example of this is the fact that his cover of the Leiber and Stoller song “Hound Dog” almost completely superseded in the public imagination the first recording of the song, by the African American blues singer Willie Mae (“Big Mama”) Thornton.

In it’s use of technology to tell the story & also because of its origin, the story is very of the times, but because of the story itself, it feels timeless and almost Shakespearean in its flair for hijinx and deception.

Each “tweet” sound in the film indicates a direct quote or moment that was taken from the original Twitter thread.

Zola and Stefani mostly wear pants (or shorts) through the entire film — another pointed statement.

“We didn’t want to just reveal them as having that kind of look that you’re expecting for someone who’s in a sex trade exchange,” Washington says. “We really wanted to ground it and give it its own power. When you think of the pantsuit, that has a sense of control.”

A softer mini-dress moment occurs early on, when Zola becomes drawn to Stefani and her sense of wide-eyed adventure. The two come together sartorially “in unison,” clad in slip dresses that harken back to a classic comedy celebrating women’s friendships: “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.” (Fun fact: The 1997 film was costume-designed by Mona May, who also did “Clueless.”) But, foreshadowing, Washington switched their color palette, so Stefani is in a blue lace Fleur du Mal, while Zola wears a custom-designed neon green dress.

“When you meet Zola in that first act, her home life is a little bit diluted. It’s a little bit soft. It’s a little bit drained of energy – which is in contrast to the vibrant colors seen in the rest of the film as her adventure begins – described like one embarking on a “Wizard of Oz”-like journey down south, with vibrant Miami colors and contrasting textures jumping off the screen.

  • Zola’s gingham cropped tank and biker shorts outfit, custom-designed by Washington, references Dorothy’s iconic checked dress, while red swoop on her Nike Cortez sneakers nods to the magical ruby slippers. The blue color palette, meanwhile, is a callback to Twitter, the platform where the story was born.

The bubble gum pinks seen in the beginning represent her innocence and playful first impression, which  provides a hard, jarring turn for Stefani’s final look: a lime green, python-print crop top and pants set by I.Am.Gia. “Her girlishness is going to morph into snake,” she says.

  • “The Wizard of Oz is this green wizard, this hidden character that we never saw,” says Washington, comparing the color symbolism to Stefani’s true intentions.

I couldn’t find specifics as to why but Bravo specifically wanted a “very tailored, very clean school girl uniform,” says Washington. “I remember asking, ‘Do you not want her to be more disheveled?’ [Bravo] was like, ‘No, she’s gonna stay pristinely clean the entire time.’ That was a very, very specific element.”

In a deeply uncomfortable (yet very funny) segment, Stefani tells the story from her perspective — or the story she wants you to believe — by narrating a sequence featuring exact verbiage from Jessica Swiatkowski (a.k.a the real Stefani)’s recount in a 2015 Reddit post.

Here Stefani is dressed in an overly conservative manner, but its sort of twisted on its head to emphasis the absurdity of that version of the story…

“It was also the ridiculousness of her wearing a suit, but the skirt’s too short,” says Bravo, who took inspiration from a polka dot skirt worn by Nicole Kidman’s scheming weather presenter in the 1995 black comedy, “To Die For.” “It’s like, you can’t wear that to court. When you sit down, I think your crotch is exposed.”

Washington envisioned a uniform from another profession, which offers yet another telling metaphor: “a really simple real estate agent that’s selling you on this story that’s not true and that no one would believe.”

Further Reading/Sources For Episode:

Rolling Stone Original Article

https://www.npr.org/2021/06/29/1009630748/zola-review-twitter-taylour-paige-riley-keough-janicza-bravo-movie

https://www.theringer.com/movies/2021/7/2/22560657/zola-movie-review-a24-twitter-thread

https://a24films.com/notes/2020/09/it-only-matters-to-me-with-janicza-bravo-and-joi-mcmillon

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