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“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”
It was October 2015, and that was the tweet heard around the world. It kicked off what became a viral, 144-tweet thread, authored by a Detroit stripper named A’Ziah “Zola” Wells, about how she got wrapped up in a virtual stranger’s frenetic Florida road trip.
On Friday, those same words made a starry comeback. They’re the first ones uttered in “Zola,” which brings its titular subject’s exploits to the big screen. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, Janicza Bravo’s romp crosses the American South to chronicle a larger-than-life saga about an appropriating white woman (the ever-magnetic Riley Keough) who takes advantage of a Black pistol (Taylour Paige in a star-making turn). Under the guise of an excursion meant to generate cash from fruitful Florida strip clubs, the “bitch” in question brings along her doltish boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) and manipulative pimp (Colman Domingo), sucking Zola into a whirlwind involving sex trafficking, attempted suicide, extortion and murder.
The Twitter thread led to a Rolling Stone report fact-checking Wells’ account, which became the source of Bravo’s script, co-written with acclaimed playwright Jeremy O. Harris. Wells had hyperbolized select details, while others were refuted by her travel companion, who insisted she had never in her life traded sex for money. But Bravo isn’t here to parse fact from fiction. “Most of what follows is true,” a title card cheekily announces at the start. As far as “Zola” is concerned, verifying the veracity of Wells’ perspective is beside the point. The film trusts her voice, right down to the quippy vernacular evidenced on Twitter, which makes the ensuing ride all the more electric. (The movie credits Wells as A’Ziah King, her married name.)
Zola meets her future companion, Stefani, while waitressing at a sports bar. In almost no time, Stefani, who cribs Black slang and sees herself as Zola’s peer, is texting Zola to invite her to Florida, where the nightclub clients appreciate new dancers to toss dollar bills at. But Stefani initially withholds details about her pimp, and what starts as a fun expedition with Migos singalongs quickly devolves when Zola says she’s not interested in sleeping with johns. With nowhere else to go, she starts soliciting higher pay rates for Stefani, unaware that most of the money will nonetheless land in the pimp’s pockets. Meanwhile, Stefani’s beau is back at a motel befriending the wrong crowd. Before long, people are firing guns.
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