The distinction between on and offline life blurred long ago. The greatest spats, sexual self-fashionings and mad soliloquies now unfurl on social media. The splenetic rhythms and fundamental shallowness of this medium make it a questionable source for art, but Janicza Bravo’s @zola — the first film ever released based entirely on a series of viral tweets — makes a tight, original fist of such material. @zola is A’Ziah ‘Zola’ Wells King, who in 2015 as a 19-year-old exotic dancer and stripper living in Detroit unleashed a 148-tweet thread, billed as #thestory, which detailed a chain of nasty but fascinating events during a surreal trip to Tampa. Full of sex, exploitation, violence and absurdity, it publicly gripped a range of celebrities, including the rapper Missy Elliott and Beyoncé’s sister Solange Knowles.
The cinematic result is a kind of burlesque comedy thriller, shot with a hazy, fever-dream effect that enhances the weirdness of the brief friendship between Zola (played by the luminous-faced newcomer Taylour Paige) and Jessica Rae Swiatkowski (in the film called Stefani, played by Riley Keough) — a white woman and fellow dancer and stripper.
The action begins with a close-up of Zola and Stefani applying make-up in pole-dancing kit, and Zola’s simple prelude, straight from Twitter: ‘Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.’ The pair, we learn, meet while Zola is waitressing at Hooters, and they bond over exotic dancing, soon going out every night together.
Stefani invites Zola to Florida for a weekend of lucrative dancing. But as soon as Zola steps in the car, things feel odd: the driver, billed as Stefani’s ‘roomate’, reveals himself to be the bombastic, violent ‘X’. Played by Colman Domingo, ‘X’ is based on ‘Z’ in the thread, aka Rudy Uwedjojevwe, a Nigerian man later arrested for sexual assault, battery and trafficking.
They make it to Tampa, where the promised dancing soon turns to prostitution, which Zola declines in disappointed disgust as she realises she’s been set up. Still, her heartstrings are tugged as Stefani pleads with her to stay, and, during an endless night in a hotel room, Zola encourages Stefani to triple her fee: ‘pussy is worth thousands, u trippin’, she tells her.
The sheer ugliness of the business is craftily handled, with customer after customer shown in all their sexually repulsive horror, forking over $500 wads. In fact, the apparent ugliness of all men — at least where sex is concerned — soon becomes the dominant theme as a series of gang-bang and gun scenes unroll. Eventually Zola makes it home to Detroit, shocked and discomfited, but just about in one piece. In real life, the two women no longer speak; Swiatkowski allegedly wanted to sue Zola for defamation before the film’s release, but didn’t have a case.
Paige as Zola is mesmerisingly expressive, while Stefani is dazzlingly acted by Riley Keough, who holds nothing back with her ‘blaccent’. She sounds exactly, even exaggeratedly, like a black woman, a nice shock in an era of finely policed race politics and phobia of cultural appropriation. Zola herself, billed as an executive producer, described Keough as being ‘in [a linguistic version of] blackface the whole time’ but gave the accent her blessing, praising its realism. The white adoption of black modes of speaking, including by white female rappers, is a phenomenon still obscure to most, and the film is almost worth watching just for this fascinating glimpse.
@zola has substance, but is mostly style, and this feels right given its source material. It sexily captures the stop-start feel of social media, with its lulls and sudden menacing bulges. Pings and zooms punctuate every thought and scene, infusing it all with the sinister banality of digital life. Above all, @zola captures with hip assurance the monstrosity that festers at the interstices of sex work, poverty and the men who operate in that sphere — axiomatically violent, seedy, ugly creatures. Against this, the internet is just an enabler, but a vital one.