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A nasty-ass neo-noir, Zola is based on the true story of Detroit dancer and waitress A’Ziah King, Zola to her friends. Over 148 tweets written in a clear and vivid prose style she laid out how her new stripper friend Stefani had tricked her into taking a job as a prostitute. Tweet one starts, “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out?”

The tweets went viral and the story got picked up by Rolling Stone, who turned it into a feature: Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted. Movie offers followed. At what point James Franco came on board is unclear but he was slated to direct until harassment allegations started circulating, which is how Janicza Bravo ended up with the gig. This is probably “a good thing”. In a film sprawling all over the issues of cultural appropriation and sexual exploitation, a black female director mutes at least one or two sections of the Twittersphere.

Bravo silences another, the racist cohort, by doing a brilliant job of directing this very dark Alice in Wonderland story about a sweet black girl hoodwinked by her new white best friend, and ending up somewhere down in Florida, where a funky apartment and a string of mostly middle-aged white men await with their tongues, and much else, graphically lolling. On the fringes, waiting menacingly, is Stefani’s pimp, X (Colman Domingo), a Nigerian American, and her boyfriend, the dweeby Derrek, played by Nicholas Braun, whose turn as ingratiating lickspittle Greg in Succession seems to have been a warm-up for this.

Nodding to its origins, little Twitter “woohoo” noises pop up now and again adding punctuation and indicating direct lifts from the original Twitter material. A sober voiceover by Zola (Taylour Paige) either signals an important development or decodes some bit of specialised language. Translating something Stefani says at one point, a freeze-frame and Zola’s world-weary voice explains, “Mm. ‘Take care of me’ in stripper language means he is her pimp… I am not here for that.”

Derrek, Stefani, Zola and X
Derrek, Stefani, Zola and X

Old white fucks like me will probably need a few minutes to acclimatise to the street-speak, the Instagram “I”m so hot” values, the every-sentence-ends-with-bitch-ness of it all, but there’s a payoff to this shock immersion. Urgent storytelling. Stefani is Hitchcock’s unexploded bomb, and Zola is the innocent unaware it’s about to go off and that she’s being played by a friend who, blaccent dialled all the way up, urges her on, to Zola’s increasingly discomfort.

“Black people can’t be racist,” was a provocative line from Dear White People, a whole territory of enquiry that Zola also explores in Stefani’s appropriative street-bitch attitude but also in X’s regular shifts out of his American accent and into a Nigerian one, especially when he’s bigging up the threatening side of himself. Can black people culturally appropriate? Discuss.

There’s something seamlessly just about perfect about Zola. The sense of jeopardy runs through it like a sweat stain, Bravo’s grungey direction and the seedily glamorous production design finding a human equivalent in Riley Keough, who’s been never less than brilliant in a string of films and TV shows since she broke out in 2016’s American Honey and does it again here, as a kind of empress of skank.

As said, Zola herself is the Alice in this unhappy Wonderland, the only sane and sorted person on a Ship of Fools full of dimbos (loved how the epithet “homeschooled” was used as a synonym for “stupid” in relation to Derrek), whackos and downright nasties. Like Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker, she’s the boring one bearing witness to the excitement around her – she’s us, in other words. A thankless role, to some extent, but Taylour Paige does it with dignity.

At one level there’s nothing to see in Zola – girl gets tricked into hooking, has bad time, the end – at another it’s a demonstration that great writing (Jeremy O Harris along with Bravo), sharp characters and having something to say can descale and upscale any old idea and make it shiny and new. And relentlessly tense and unpleasant.

Zola – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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