If you tried removing from Hollywood history any film that portrayed or otherwise depended on selling sex, there might not be a whole lot left. But the framing is all; it helps, when using sex for entertainment, to wrap a bit of critique around it. In my favorite Barbara Stanwyck vehicle, Baby Face (1933), which for 70 years after its initial release was accessible only in censored form, the protagonist, Lily Powers, pimped out by her father since her early teens to the patrons of his small-town speakeasy, follows the advice of an avuncular Nietzsche aficionado and starts taking charge of her own (inevitable) exploitation. After hopping a freight train to New York City with a friend, Lily makes her way, man by man, into a job and up the ranks—shots pan up the building’s exterior to mark her rise—riding out and even capitalizing on the ensuing scandals, accruing cash and other goodies, and, ultimately, finding love, with a husband who’s capable of admiring her savoir faire.
When Baby Face fell victim to the Hays Code in 1934, the most blatant cuts and alterations were not aimed at the sexual subject matter per se (without which there’d really be no plot at all): It was Nietzsche and the happy ending that got the chop—as the butchered version spelled out, “there is a right way and a wrong way” to seek one’s fortune, and since Lily made hers the wrong way, she could not be allowed to keep it.
Between that era of economic desperation and this one, the line on what’s too explicit for mainstream film has of course moved very far, and yet unspoken rules still govern portrayals of sex for profit: The sexually appealing characters shouldn’t have too much fun for too long, make too much money, or enjoy too much comradeship among their ranks. The generally buoyant, sweet, sympathetic tone of Lorene Scafaria’s 2019 Hustlers, based on a real-life group of strippers who drugged and ripped off their Wall Street clients, felt like something of a departure—a pole-dancing crime caper that was really a high-femme love story. And Janicza Bravo’s Zola, which she wrote with the playwright Jeremy O. Harris based on A’Ziah “Zola” King’s intricate, dramatic 2015 viral Twitter thread, at first promises to be more like Hustlers than the movies that came before: a summer romp in which the women like themselves and one another, and the audience roots for them to make off with as much cash as they can. Without the industry censorship of old, there’s little to hold these characters back—except, that is, for the strictures of social media.
The movie begins in the same place as its source. “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch fell out?” asks Zola, here played by Taylour Paige. “It’s kinda long but full of suspense….” Like the Twitter thread itself—which opened with four photos of Zola and the blonde in question posing together—the film has an upfront appeal based on the electricity between the two women, even though we’ve already been warned that things are about to go drastically wrong.
That early, lovestruck period in their friendship sets a mood for Zola that feels as if you’ve just come out of a swoon and are ready to jump back in again: The light is hazy, the clothes and makeup are acid-bright, and dreamy girl-group harmonies fill the air. Zola, a beautiful, bored, harried young Black woman, is waitressing at Hooters when Stefani (Riley Keough), a venturesome white customer with cornrows and an exuberant AAVE accent, comes in and compliments her boobs, which are “like little apples.” They bond right away, establishing that they’ve both danced in strip clubs, and it’s clear they can appreciate in detail each other’s potential—erotic, financial—which seems somewhat wasted on their adoring but drippy boyfriends. Soon Zola is ignoring hers to lie like a teen on her bedroom floor, smirking at Stefani’s texts and, against her better judgment, agreeing to take an impromptu trip with her and her boyfriend and roommate to Florida and pick up a few thousand dollars stripping.
This hot-girl road movie opening feels delightfully retro and familiar, though cut to resemble life online. With notifications pinging on the soundtrack, iPhone-font time stamps, and camera flashes, the film initially evokes the addictive thrills of social media—connection, attention, a panoply of possible selves to inhabit—without the anxious vulnerability. The light, the colors, the half-naked women reveling in their dominance of public space, their sense that if there’s a joke it’s on somebody else, recall Harmony Korine’s 2012 film, Spring Breakers, which dared the viewer to overinterpret its luscious shallows. As the sun-bleached road streams away under vast pale skies, Stefani writhes up through the car’s open roof with her tongue all the way out; in the dressing-room of the club in Tampa, she sits on Zola’s lap for selfies, silver-fringe pasties cascading from her nipples. Zola applies mascara as if in some ritual trance and asks her multiple reflections, “Who are you gonna be tonight, Zola?”
But by this point the snake has slithered into Eden: Zola stiffens in the car at Stefani’s casual racism and is alarmed on figuring out that the “roommate,” X (Colman Domingo), is really her pimp. Much of the ensuing strife is played for laughs—easy to do, since Zola is the kind of self-assured narrator nothing that bad can happen to, beyond a stressful lost weekend. You’re free to sit back and see how weird and lurid things can get. Before the rest of the group ditches Stefani’s boyfriend, Derrek, a white dude played by Nicholas Braun as the ideal stooge, Stefani placates him, cooing “Whose is this?” as she taps her own heart and his in turn with a giant acrylic nail. Braun, whose floppy hair, scrap of beard, and gangly height connote superfluity, is another comforting presence: With this guy established as the punch line, you know the joke can’t get too dark.
Soon Zola finds herself in a hotel room, playing unwilling receptionist to a series of men who show up for sex with Stefani. Zola refuses to “trap” (as X puts it), but she also doesn’t leave, first because Stefani does some manipulative weeping, and later because she is afraid of X’s reprisals. Since she’s there, she intervenes to up Stefani’s rates, which X has set derisively low (“pussy is worth thousands!”). From there, things escalate, and while some of the wilder turns of the original thread seem to have been smoothed out a little, other bizarre touches—like the way X keeps veering into a Nigerian accent whenever someone angers him—come straight from King’s account. As the motley crew squabbles and lies and bumbles into a local turf war they must then flee, guns and cash get flashed poolside; it’s like a grown-up Wizard of Oz, in which Zola will no doubt feel cured of her lust for adventure by the time she makes it back home.
Despite its pleasurably deranging source material, you can detect an oddly cautious, taming impulse at work in Zola. When Stefani gets a few minutes to tell her side, she’s presented as a narrator not just unreliable but ludicrous. We are encouraged throughout to identify only with Zola, so that after the reckless, giddy opening, Paige is reduced to handling a long series of discomforts and irritations with the grace a reasonable person might imagine falling back on if accidentally trafficked by a bunch of incompetents. An everywoman trapped in an awkward situation, Zola doesn’t do any sex work beyond stripping, but she doesn’t express judgment of those who do: It’s left conveniently unresolved whether she’s refusing because the arrangements are tawdry and unprofessional, or because she has ruled it out on principle. Zola never does or says anything offensive or unsympathetic.
The engine of the plot and the film’s comic energy thus rely on everyone else: the men, either violent, pathetic, stupid, or all of the above, and the gleefully destructive white woman. Stefani isn’t so much a character as an effect. Possible motivations are suggested (she can’t escape X’s clutches; she needs money for her child back home), but all feel unconvincing, only offered up, as if in quotes, for a few minutes at a time whenever she needs to talk or cry her way out of trouble. Her intuitive cunning serves no larger purpose: It emerges that she routinely tricks women into doing sex work with her, yet she charges far less than she could and makes no effort to hold on to any of the money; she keeps her boyfriend around, though he’s ineffectual and must be constantly soothed. In a sense, Keough gets to play the film’s presiding artist, an imp of the perverse who sets things in motion just to see what might happen.
In real life, of course, Zola is the artist, who posted and deleted her story twice before figuring out how to punch it up so everyone would pay attention, who made up some of the juiciest details—including a surprise defenestration—to heighten the drama, while still keeping her own character free of any liability. Where the script allows, the charismatic Paige conveys that inventiveness and will. Yet the film, while often glorious fun, doesn’t always live up to the chaotic thrill of the social media drama it came from, the artful unpredictability, the warring personae, the tension between the tricked-innocent Zola of the story and the puppet master so thoroughly enjoying telling it. Whereas the production code censors toned down the triumphant shrewdness of Baby Face’s heroine, the Zola of Zola has edited herself before posting. That might be why the movie, after its spectacular denouement, doesn’t have much of an ending. Not old-fashioned enough to slip into a morality tale, it nonetheless won’t quite let you feel you’re watching a woman get away with something.