“Zola” Defies Comparison

There’s no comparing Zola to anything else. As the opening show slowly dollies around A’Ziah “Zola” King (Taylour Paige) and Stefani (Riley Keough) doing their makeup, making up their identities, in a mirror-filled void, whatever cinematic reference points one might be tempted to project onto the film are dashed away confidently. Though the film may ostensibly swim through a melange of genres that might be easy to ascribe to the story, and to the viral tweet thread by King that serves as its source text, director Janicza Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O. Harris luxuriate, rather, in its shape shifting quality. It is not so easy to box it in as “like Hustlers” or “like Spring Breakers”, as neither is especially true beyond the surface identifier. But that Zola is scintillatingly incomparable is by design, as a work existing within the lineage of queer art, Black art, and femme art.

Harris says that its emotionally and narratively chameleonic qualities were shaped by its faith to the source text and how that guided the process. “Because we just took the text as the text, it allowed the work to be what it was going to be, which was a genreless, a more fiercely immersive piece of storytelling,” he told me over Zoom recently. “And I think that that’s a marker of both Black work, queer work, and femme work from across the decades.” Bravo asserts that its strength of variant emotional aspects was derived from adapting not only the text of King’s tweets, but the emotional reality of them as well: “When A’Ziah was writing and in the process of writing, I don’t think that she had decided genre either, right? She wrote three drafts of this piece. And the first draft she wrote, which was in March, right after she came back from the trip was rather morose and really heavy. And then the third one ends up being something that is totally humorous.” I mentioned the aspects in which Zola, which uses narration and direct address, occasionally resembles a memory play, in which the action is set in the past but the character has an awareness of the passage of time, or of a temporal incongruency. Bravo continued, “And I think the elements of it that are suspenseful or mysterious, or [are] more like just her own process of going through or getting through her trauma. I think they happen rather effortlessly. I think, really, it’s like, it is a writer on a goal to get herself on to the other side, right? Like, the end goal is, I have to make it out alive. I know that I make it out alive. And I’m going to make sure it’s funny as shit.”

So much of what makes Zola fascinating within the context of genre comes from the truth. Audiences, too, have noticed the spiritual weight of its most surreal moments, even as they attempt to frame it within easy categorization. “The most common thing we’ve seen [audiences notice] is Coleman’s accent change, which is horrifying. It’s so frightening, because out of nowhere. And yet, that was a complete invention from [King] that also just came from real life.”

Although an early starting point for the collaboration between Bravo and Harris was Pam Grier (Harris said Bravo quizzed him: “‘Jeremy, I want you to tell me right now, in what films have seen you a sexually vibrant Black woman as the lead?’”), Bravo shied away from too many cinematic influences. “Sometimes when I’m using film as reference, I will subconsciously try to replicate [them], and so I tend to kind of steer away,” she explained. Instead, as the two were writing, they turned predominantly towards photography: Deanna Lawson’s portraits of sex workers as framed through family and Argentinian photographer Maxi Magnano’s hazy, grainy dreamlike grasp of lighting were two that Bravo named as strong reference points.

But Bravo and her collaborators have consumed all of these ideas (their moodboard was a Dropbox with 600+ files), “evidenced them”, as Harris says, and unsheathed a new brilliance that refuses to invite superficial juxtaposition. Rather, it lives and breathes not only the essence of King’s original thread, but of the ethos of art from designers on the margins for whom such boxes are effectively hegemonic compartmentalization. Queer art like Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, which Harris brought up, uses genre and film history itself to reject reflexive compartmentalization.

This piece was originally pitched as something like, “The 7 Movies That Inspired Zola” or some such. And I had my own comparison points in my head (I had thought of Claire Denis and Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou, as well as Ingmar Bergman’s Persona). There is increasingly a conditioning, particularly as a culture writer, to compare, contrast, play with cinema not necessarily on its own terms, but as a game with Easter eggs containing a name or a title here and there. The satiric opening of Altman’s The Player where pitches are like “it’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman” is an entire approach to engaging with film, but in earnest.

But the conversation with Bravo and Harris was more illuminating and challenging than a listicle: that there are methods of being inspired, like taking from theory or gestures from an actor, but that there is a way to push forward through those cultural artifacts to establish a specific voice that is aware of its cultural lineage, but hardly beholden to it. Bravo told me, “I didn’t make a list of what are kind of our touchstones here that we were hitting on emotionally or what are the keys that we’re playing beyond, ‘This is a comedy that I’m directing inside of a drama, or is it a drama that I’m directing inside of a comedy’, right? Like those are really the only two things that are very clear in the approach. And I think the parts where you’re feeling like terror, or horror or suspense, those happen because of the humor and the drama and the discomfort.” Isn’t that kind of wallop, almost a disorientation of the work you’re engaging with, evidence of finding something fresh, and brilliant? That a loss of vocabulary is, in the case of Zola, kind of liberatory? That disorientation as adrenaline inducing is the hallmark of great artistry: is there another scene like transition from one world to another as Zola and Stefani stare in each other’s eyes in the beginning? There are daggers, identification, construction, and yearning in that locked gaze. At once sinister, heartbreaking, Orphean, inebriating, funny, hypnotic, a lights out on how such stories of sex work, Sapphic desire, race, betrayal are told.

Harris told me the German word Gesamtkunstwerk, meaning “total work of art”, and to really synthesize various methods, modes, and techniques into a totality, is a crucial part of their process. Zola is photography, it is literature, it is theatre, it is Mica Levi’s music, it is Joi McMillan’s editing, it is Ari Wagner cinematography, it is Taylour Paige and Riley Keough and Colman Domingo’s performances, it is A’Ziah King’s thread, it is Jeremy O. Harris’ co-writing, and it is Janicza Bravo’s direction. There’s nothing like Zola. Just watch it and you’ll know.

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Kyle Turner

Kyle Turner

Snarkoleptic. Queer monster. Amateur critic. Professional snob. Writer person. I am relieved to know that I am not a golem. Words in Slate, GQ, the NYTimes, etc