“Y’all wanna hear a story about how me and this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”
The now-famous opening refrain from A’Ziah-Monae King’s Internet-breaking, viral, addictive Twitter thread isn’t just a snappy story starter that makes you lean into your phone and think More, please! It’s also the first glimpse down the hilarious and harrowing rabbit hole that is the journey of King (who prefers the name Zola) and her connection to “Jess,” a woman she met while she was working at a Hooters in Detroit. Their terrifying — but also surprisingly really funny — adventure, which takes them into the seedy underbelly of Tampa, set our timelines ablaze in 2015 and is now the first film adaptation of a Twitter thread (fittingly, since Zola is credited as inventing Twitter threads).
From the outset, the film, directed by Janicza Bravo, is a based-on-a-mostly-true story about how Zola (played by a revelatory Taylour Paige) and “this bitch” Stefani (changed from "Jess" in the thread, and played as a seemingly clueless but actually conniving scammer by Riley Keough with eerie precision) fell out. But it’s also a winding tale of whiteness, appropriation, sex work, and the complicated dynamics of interracial friendship. It’s the latter, and specifically the film’s interrogation of the word “friendship,” that takes Zola from a fun Spring Breakers-esque romp to a wild but intense meditation on the intricacies of trust and exploitation through the lens of race and racism. Stefani is a white woman who deceives a Black woman into a road trip under false pretences — Zola thinks they are going to Tampa to strip, while Stefani is really trying to lure her into a nonconsensual sex working relationship with her pimp, X (played by habitual scene-stealer Colman Domingo).
"I hope that the Black women who see the film feel seen and feel heard."
- ZOLA DIRECTOR JANICZA BRAVO
“It is a Black woman telling a story about how her and a white woman fall out. So whether or not you want it to be about race, it just is because these two individuals move through the world differently,” Bravo told the LA Times recently. “They’re looked at differently. They’re cared for differently.” In a Zoom conversation with R29Unbothered, joined by her stars Paige and Keough, Bravo expands on the relationship between Zola and Stefani, and whether it’s accurate to call something based on lies and manipulation a “friendship.”
“I do think it's a friendship. I think it's a short friendship, but it is a friendship,” Bravo, who co-wrote the screenplay with playwright Jeremy O. Harris, says. “I hadn't really seen obsession between women go sour while also speaking to jealousy [onscreen].” The root of that jealousy is where race can’t be ignored. Stefani is doing her best “Cash Me Ousside” impersonation of a white girl who desperately wants to be Black — or at least to perform a caricature of a certain kind of Blackness without taking on any of the realities that Black women face in the world. She’s got the braids, high ponytails, laid baby hairs and comically offensive “Blaccent,” but reverts to the shield of white womanhood when things get uncomfortable.
“The appropriation was on the page. How offensive [Stefani] is, was on the page,” Keough says. “She was a demon. And so, I knew what I was signing up for... I've met women like this. I've met white men and white women who talk like this. So, I definitely had that in my memory bank. [The hardest part] was figuring out a way to make it not silly. To make it feel authentic, and not like she was [overtly] mocking Zola,” she adds. “Janicza was always pushing me further. [She] wanted to go full offensive, not a little bit.” Bravo laughs and chimes in: “I wanted full trouble.”
And they succeeded, but it’s hard not to think Stefani is mocking Zola — imitation isn’t a form of flattery when its goal is deception and rooted in hundreds of years of oppression. As the film progresses, the audience is let in on Stefani’s “trouble” in the form of her terribly-kept secret: she loves Black women enough to steal from their culture, but not enough to tell the one she supposedly calls a “friend” the truth. At every twist and turn of this tale, Stefani is gaslighting her way through each step, and stepping over Zola to wield her whiteness as a weapon. Sure, it’s Domingo’s X who is supposedly calling the shots (and acts as a serious aside in a sometimes-ridiculous story to remind us of the abuse, misogyny and outright danger that can happen in sex work), but it’s Stefani who holds the power over Zola (and her bumbling boyfriend Derrek, a perfectly cast Nicholas Braun). She’s the one who Zola feels like she needs to protect, even when she’s exposing her to danger. As Stefani plays the classic white woman in distress card, which people of colour have been conditioned to feel obligated to help and save, Zola consistently falls into her trap of coercion masquerading as naivety.
The push-and-pull of their friendship, Stefani’s doe-eyed, feigned ignorance contrasting with Zola’s perpetual scepticism and frustration, is at the heart of a film that, in the wrong hands, could have easily reduced Zola to the all-too-familiar Sassy Black Best Friend trope in her own story.
“Riley's character was the buffoon and I was the straight man. We were swapping stereotypes and taking back the projected presumption that Zola was going to be all, whatever,” Paige says. The “whatever” she is referring to is the hyperbolic expression of Blackness that Stefani is attempting to mimic. The audience watches Zola code-switch in real time. “I have like 40 different voices in my head, depending on who I'm with and what my mood is and how I started my day,” Paige says of navigating Zola’s performance. “[I code-switch depending] on comfort, or when someone has me really f*cked up. [Black women] have so many different voices and we all do.”
There are many moments in Bravo’s adaptation that Black women will recognise from real-life experiences, like Zola’s knowing, irritated glances when Stefani is at her most dishonest, or her impressive survival instincts in the most messed up situations. “I hope that the Black women who see the film feel seen and feel heard,” Bravo says. “Taylour's character was shining a light on an interior that we, or that I, hold so close — that no one's even asking for where we're at. And so much of the movie is about shining a light on [Zola’s] full, rich interior life.”
Riley's character was the buffoon and I was the straight man. We were swapping stereotypes and taking back the projected presumption that Zola was going to be all, whatever.
- TAYLOUR PAIGE
While the film does fall short of fully fleshing out Zola’s motivations (like why she would go on a long roadtrip with three strangers or keep putting up with this scheming white girl’s shit), part of that interior life is Zola’s toxic relationship with Stefani. Paige and Keough, on the other hand, formed a true, and far less messy, bond offscreen. “It's rare that you have the kind of connection Taylour and I have. So it was really special, and it allowed us both to feel really free and able to perform well,” Keough says. “We're best friends. We see each other almost every day. And I think that that was just evident on screen.”
Bravo says her stars’ real connection was the opposite of the jealous, competitive vibe Stefani brought to her relationship with Zola. “[During] some of our crunchier, harder, emotional, or more hostile scenes, before I would even say anything, the two of [them] were together, and one would be like, ‘You did so great. I loved when you did this,'” she says as Keough and Paige laugh in unison. “It was just, I was like, ‘Well, no one needs me here. They got each other.’"
Paige would even coach Keough on how to say certain lines as Stefani, and vice versa (the real Stefani was not approached to be involved in the film while King was heavily involved in telling her story onscreen). Paige says their relationship is built on “trust and love,” which is ironic because those two foundational pillars of friendship are absent from whatever is going on between Zola and Stefani. You don’t love or trust someone and forget to tell them your fun girls trip to Tampa is actually going to involve a controlling pimp and the inability to leave when things get shady.
While Bravo admits that Black and white women are likely to have different experiences watching Zola, she swears the film is about the inextricable link between the two protagonists. She treated the source material as if she were adapting “August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, Ibsen Chekhov, or whatever,” she says. “I would go back to that first tweet and it’s how I approached every gesture in the movie. I was thinking so much about the fast friendship that happens between two women and really leaning into that chemical reaction. The story I'm telling is, ‘Do you want to hear a story about how me and this bitch here fell out?’ And this is very much a story about friendship.”
Zola will be released in UK cinemas on August 6th.