Known simply as #TheStory, A’Ziah “Zola” King’s tale of a weekend trip gone awry—told through 148 tweets in October 2015—revealed how Twitter’s affective power could be exploited to great dramatic effect. Zola (2021), the recent A24 adaptation directed by Janicza Bravo with a script co-written by Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris, fails to capture the impact of #TheStory. Comparatively speaking, the adaptation is sterile in its execution as it foregoes #TheStory’s rich investment in the natural mess of sex. Zola (played by Taylour Paige) is rendered as an audience stand-in rather than an active force who managed to negotiate her safety during an attempt to sex traffic her on a “hoe trip.” Zola is more invested in the absolution of King’s actions that weekend. As such, the film overlooks King’s experience with sex work beyond the stripper’s pole. This omission, intentional or otherwise, works to cast her as above representations of the excess flesh of explicit Black bodies—in this case, sex workers—who exist in a space of moral ambivalence.1
Bravo and Harris describe Zola’s onscreen minimalist behavior as a cinematic display of capturing Black women’s interiority.2 While I agree that there is a paucity of Black women’s interiority onscreen, rendering the lead character—one who was instrumental in the fabulation and distribution of this tale—silent works against such pursuits. Through her silence, Bravo and Harris labor to frame Zola as a respectable heroine. Rather than deal with King’s own admission of moral ambiguity, we have a portrayal of a woman who becomes a foil to Stefani’s (played by Riley Keough) loud, messy, and deceitful white woman—stereotypical traits we often find associated with Black women on screen.
This “subversion” is not as successful as it reads. The reversal of these signifiers reveals how excess flesh carries a negative connotation to the writers. Black women’s bodies, or flesh, have long been a signifier for our sexuality. The flesh, like the skin, is an attribute of the body that has historically and theoretically been used to demarcate the spaces of otherness. The use of the flesh recalls Hortense Spillers’s seminal Black feminist provocation made in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” in which she writes, “in that sense, before the ‘body’ there is the ‘flesh,’ that zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse, or the reflexes of iconography.”3 By positioning themselves as above the flesh, colonialists were able to use discourse and images to assert that Black bodies were not human and subsequentely below whiteness. Rather than navigate how the explicit Black body (in both representation and aesthetics) could resist these tropes by disavowing their aesthetic grip over our imagination, Zola simply reverses them in its portrayal of Zola and Stefani. The film firmly reminds audiences of their allegiance to negative associations with explicit Black bodies in a disturbing sequence taken from Stefani’s point of view. Three quarters of the way into the film, Stefani breaks the fourth wall to present her side of #TheStory. The sequence swiftly retraces how Stefani met Zola at the start of their weekend and culminates in Stefani receiving her first client because “no one wanted Zola.”
While Stefani’s sequence is a display of overt anti-Blackness, it inevitably affords audiences a chance to revel in it with her. In several reviews, this scene is met with near unanimous laughter as Stefani speaks directly into the camera while wearing a blush pink suit, describing Zola as ghetto and trashy. If Bravo and Harris felt the need to portray “both sides” of #TheStory by including the anti-Blackness of Jessica’s (Stefani in the film) real Reddit post, the camera does not need to corroborate it—yet it does. We cut to Zola wearing a blue version of her gingham waitress uniform with hay, grass, and dirt coming out of her weave. This visual actually differs from Jessica’s Reddit post, in which she describes being taken aback by King’s beauty from their first encounter (the compliments end there). Further, when Stefani picks up Zola, she waddles out of her home wearing a short afro wig, a garbage bag, and flip flops. The inclusion of Stefani’s perspective reaffirms Zola’s respectability: Zola’s version must be correct because she is clean in both her actions and appearance (hell, even her urine is used to demonstrate her proximity to respectability).
Re-reading the source material for the film, I was struck by King’s personality, candor, liveliness, and, yes, her use of fabulation. Gilles Deleuze describes fabulation as a creative drive within film that lends itself to the “powers of the false.” Fabulation defines the power to invent new truths of a history, and helps audiences relate to the world around them in ways that representation cannot.4 King admits to embellishing the tale to give it some potency after posting and deleting the tale twice before to no interest.5 But it is precisely the added fabulations that made #TheStory and King popular. Critically though, King did not use these embellishments to portray herself as a saint, but rather as a young woman familiar with sex work who was led into the wrong hoe trip.
What I was impressed with in #TheStory was how King negotiated safety for Jessica throughout the experience. Whether or not these details are true, King’s elaboration on why she stayed despite several opportunities to bail, and her creation of a new Backpage ad that would ensure Jessica earn her own income outside of her pimp’s controlling gaze, is demonstrative of how sex workers (ranging from exotic dancers to prostitutes) provide what scholar and sex worker advocate Lauren Levitt describes as material support for one another that is absent from saviorism tropes.6 As a former sex worker, those details stood out to me because they revealed how King was able to de-escalate the dangerous situation she was in. This type of agency is indicative of someone who cannot be protected by representations of respectability, and it is ultimately a vision that I do not believe the filmmakers were interested in capturing.
Moreover, Zola feels like two separate films. On the one hand, we have #TheStory, and on the other, we have a director’s interest in capturing how the perils and lures of social media turn our lives into virtually-mediated realities. Bravo’s direction excels in the latter, and I would very much like to see her take on more experimental work that gives her free rein to aestheticize what life feels like in the 21st century amidst the entrapment of digital technology. The film’s use of emojis, scrolling visual edits, iPhone visuals, and Zola’s flaccid gaze into the warm glow of her phone feel disjointed with the chaotic thrust of the narrative actions. Additionally, Mica Levi’s score—which bristles with sonic cues of bings, dings, and other notification soundbites—overwhelms the narrative action. Levi is an accomplished experimental musician whose score for Under the Skin (2013) worked harmoniously with the eerie dread established by Jonathan Glazer; in Zola, their composition dominates the narrative flow.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that the film should have shied away from such experimental aesthetics, nor do I believe a conventional rendering of this film would be appropriate. Rather, I remain puzzled by how these aesthetic decisions minimize the impact of what made King’s tale so provocative in the first place: her lived experience and her voice. While we hear Zola in voice-over inconsistently throughout the film, the voice-over (as in most films) does not add more insight to the scenario but remains descriptive of what she is witnessing in relation to a perceived audience. Audiences are led to believe that this dialogue is from the Twitter thread itself, which it is not. In reality, the voice-over—like some of the iPhone text graphics we see in the film—speaks toward a desire to explain Zola’s lifestyle to an audience completely removed from such experiences. This is a missed opportunity. Rather than take a more impactful margins-to-center approach that is crucial for those located in the hoeism that ignites the narrative action in both #TheStory and Zola, the film averts their gazes in their portrayal of a woman who can be protected by some proximity to respectability, and thus betrays its source material as a result.
- Nicole Fleetwood, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 9.
- Sandi Rankaduwa, “‘Zola’ is This Summer’s Best Movie,” Buzzfeed, June 30th, 2021, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/sandirankaduwa/zola-twitter-movie-interview-review.
- Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987): 67.
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 126.
- David Kushner, “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted,” Rolling Stone, November 17th, 2015, https://www.rollingstone.com/feature/zola-tells-all-the-real-story-behind-the-greatest-stripper-saga-ever-tweeted-73048/.
- Lauren Levitt, “Sex Work and Networks of Support,” Medium, August 23rd, 2017, https://medium.com/@laurenlevitt/sex-work-and-networks-of-support-99b9db3055d4.