For Variety‘s Writers on Writers, Morgan Parker pays tribute to “Zola” (screenplay by Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris; based on the tweets by A’Ziah King; based on the article by David Kushner; story by Andrew Neel and Mike Roberts).
“Who you gonna be tonight?” is a question I’ve asked in the mirror a hundred times.
Maybe because I’m a Black woman who wants to have control over how other people see my body, instead of the other way around, and because I know I look like something to everybody. (“What do I look like to you?”)
Maybe that’s why, when Zola is pole dancing with the gracious athleticism of Serena Williams and the reckless sensuality of Nicki’s “Anaconda,” and an old white guy leans in to tell her she looks like Whoopi Goldberg, I know shit about to go left. These brilliantly placed and often painfully comedic moments of Black discomfort couldn’t be spoken with better eyes than those of Taylour Paige, whose performance as Zola I can’t praise enough.
With “Zola,” Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris have taken up the complex task of bringing a story from Twitter page to page to screen and delivered a masterclass in imagination; and their artistic play is palpable. Both genius weirdos on their own, Janicza and Jeremy have done what only the most successful collaborations achieve, and made something that neither could render so gorgeously on their own, and it’s an honor to experience.
Under Janicza’s direction, every frame sings and every line is given its proper stage. At times the film conjures the installation art of Yayoi Kusama, pays homage to Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights”; other scenes call up the astounding photography of Deanna Lawson, or memories of ’90s Lil’ Kim.
This screenplay winks at the flexibility of language, relishes in the impressive number of meanings and tenors taken on by words like “cute” and “bitch.” The characters, ranging from deliciously flawed to high-key revolting, are rendered nonjudgmentally, with equal care and criticism. No shade, no shame. Just witness.
“Zola” makes beautiful use of the layers that hang in the air long after words are spoken. Those lines that seem to become refrains. “Who you gonna be tonight? Who’s looking out for me?”
Parker is the author of the young adult novel “Who Put This Song On?” and the poetry collections “Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night,” “There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé” and “Magical Negro.”