“Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many devices, who wandered full many ways after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy.”
Somewhere out there, a progressive teacher is placing the first line of A'ziah "Zola" King's famous Twitter thread from 2015 beside the opening to one of Homer's two great sagas. Why not? Jeremy O Harris, co-writer of this gamey variation on King's sequence of tweets, has already made the comparison. "It was in the style of The Odyssey, in the style of The Epic of Gilgamesh. And it had a very clear narrative," he commented.
“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense,” King began. Hell, yeah. She went on to tell us about how she and a stripper named Jessica travelled to Florida with a mind to making some money dancing around poles. As was the case for Odysseus, the great journey was not without its mishaps. As was the case with Homer, King was creative with the facts. There were gruesome interactions with useless boyfriends and dangerous pimps. Hints of murder. Outbreaks of prostitution.
Every now and then, there are rumours that such a viral sensation is set to become “a Hollywood movie” (whatever that now means). More often than not the project burns up in development hell. Janicza Bravo, a New York director of Panamanian descent, defies expectations with a thrilling, dirty, consistently blind-siding project that engages with its source media while remaining defiantly cinematic. It deserves many “likes”.
Taylour Paige, a familiar supporting player, breaks out with her weary, exasperated turn as the eponymous Zola, a dancer and waitress. The consistently terrific Riley Keough, chameleon of her generation, plays the temptress now named Stefani. They meet up when Zola serves Stefani in an unprepossessing diner. The latter mentions a strip club in Tampa where they can make some serious money.
Stefani brings the sinister, older Abegunde (Colman Domingo), her “roommate”, and Derrek (Nicholas Braun), her thick boyfriend, along for the ride. We soon learn that Abegunde is a pimp and that Stefani has planned something more penetrative than mere exotic dancing.
It is reasonable to ask if any viewer approaching the film with no prior knowledge would guess that it was adapted from social media. Almost certainly not. The dialogue and voice-over reflect the stylised punch of online speech, but the language is no less “real” than the structured aphorisms in All About Eve. Indeed, in this world, voice-over takes on a reality it has never had before. Promiscuous Twitter users such as Zola run a constant narration of their lives through their handheld devices. “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” Henry Hill might now tweet at the start of Goodfellas. Well, maybe not. But you get the idea.
Zola, which is shot in an ugly/beautiful blaze that kicks up reminders of Sean Baker’s Tangerine, stresses incident and character over narrative structure. Indeed, it would be irresponsible of any critic not to warn that, rather than ending, the film screeches to a near-random halt (a cheeky provocation too far, perhaps).
Happily, the actors are more than up to the task. Soaked in uneasy racial politics, Paige and Keough – the first playing a watchful black woman, the second a white woman whose prejudices take a while to emerge – work hard at unveiling complementary energies. Domingo is charismatically awful. Braun, best known as cousin Greg from Succession, is maybe a little too funny as the useless boyfriend cast into the deepest part of the deep end. It feels a little as if he has escaped from a more conventional film.
Time will tell if the social media thread is set to become the epic poem of the new millennium. For now, Zola feels like a triumphant lunge into fresh territory.
Opens on August 6th