Zola: Janicza Bravo’s Offbeat Indie, Starring Taylour Paige and Riley Keough

One of the greatest joys of American indies is that you never cab guess the origins or the sources of truly original or offbeat features–in other words, where they come from.

Such is the case of Zola, a serio-comic crime film, directed by Janicza Bravo and written by her and Jeremy O. Harris.

The tale is based on viral Twitter thread from 2015 by Aziah “Zola” King and the Rolling Stone article by David Kushner, “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted.”

It stars Taylour Paige as Zola, a part-time stripper who is convinced by her new friend (Riley Keough) to travel to Tampa, Florida, in order to earn money, only to get in over her head.

World premiering at the 2020 Sundance Film Fest, it was released on June 30, 2021 by A24, after a year delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zola, which received positive reviews from critics, is now the leading nominee for the Independent Spirit Awards.

Aziah “Zola” King, a self-assured waitress and part-time stripper in Detroit, meets at work Stefani, an outgoing and crass fellow stripper.

Stefani invites Zola to dance with her at a club, and the two form quick friendship. The next day, Stefani proposes that Zola join her on a road trip to Tampa, Florida, where Stefani claims they can make a lot of money.

Zola then joins Stefani, her mysterious roommate, X, and Stefani’s sheepish boyfriend, Derrek, on a road trip.

Upon arriving, Stefani, Zola, and X leave Derrek at a seedy motel while they visit the club where Stefani claims her friends earned over $5,000 in one night. The two perform at the club, but do not net nearly as much.

Zola learns that Stefani and X have posted photos of her and Stefani in Backpage ad selling a night of sex with them. Zola attempts to leave, but is threatened by X, who’s actually Stefani’s pimp.

X brings the women to upscale hotel, where Stefani has sex with male client. Zola, who does not wish to participate, is incredulous that X is charging only $150 per client.

Zola edits the Backpage ad, changing the rate to $500 in order to help Stefani earn more money; by the end of the night, Stefani has made over $8,000.

X, insulted by Zola’s intervention, grows impressed. Meanwhile, Derrek, left to his own devices, befriends Dion whom he meets at the motel. When X, Stefani, and Zola return to the motel, X is enraged to discover that Derrek informed Dion about their reason for visiting Tampa. Worried that Dion and associates will rob them, X forces the group to flee.

At another hotel, X arranges for Stefani to see more clients, while a reluctant Zola stands by to ensure Stefani’s safety.

When Derrek realizes Stefani is again engaging in prostitution, he reveals to Zola that Stefani has manipulated other dancers into participating in similar prostitution rackets.

Angered, Zola loses trust in Stefani. Derrek and Stefani’s quarreling is interrupted when X bursts in with Baybe, his lover and madam, armed with a gun. After calming the situation, X gives Zola a gun for the women’s protection, and Stefani and Zola are sent out to meet with clients.

Stefani engages in gang bang at private residence, and the women visit another hotel, to meet a client who responded to their ad. Upon arrival, Stefani is grabbed by the client, and a terrified Zola calls X and Derrek on her phone. The three return to the room and find the men inside are Dion and accomplice, armed with shotguns, who have posed as clients in order to rob Stefani’s earnings.

At gunpoint, X offers the men $50,000, along with possession of Zola, if they let him and Derrek leave with Stefani. As Zola is penetrated against her will by Dion, X draws the gun from Zola’s purse, and shoots Dion in the throat.

The group flee the hotel, disposing of Dion’s guns into the Tampa Bay. The group arrives at the luxurious home X shares with Baybe. When X proclaims possession of Stefani, Derrek threatens to commit suicide, then throws himself over a balcony, injuring his head. Zola, Stefani, and X take Derrek to the hospital.

In the end, Stefani proclaims her love for Zola, but she is met with disgust as the exhausted Zola ignores her.

Taylour Paige as Aziah “Zola” King
Riley Keough as Stefani
Nicholas Braun as Derrek
Colman Domingo as Abegunde “X” Olawale
Ari’el Stachel as Sean
Jason Mitchell as Dion
Ts Madison as Hollywood
Nelcie Souffrant as Gail
Nasir Rahim as Jonathan
Sophie Hall as Baybe
Jarquale Stewart as C.C.