Scene it: Darkly comedic film ‘Zola’ strips stigma from dancing

A black smartphone screen shows a list of social networking applications including Twitter.
Rorye Jones PO ’23 argues that “Zola”, a film based off a Twitter thread, is a rare example of cinematography empowering women’s bodies. (Nanako Noda • The Student Life)

The concept: a road trip to Miami to make thousands from what you think will be a spontaneous stripping adventure with a friend that you just met last week, her insecure boyfriend and her secretly scheming pimp, only to have your “friend” post you on a Backpage ad for sex work and ultimately end up in a hotel room at gunpoint. Chances are, you haven’t experienced something remotely like this, I hope. Miraculously, Aziah “Zola” King actually lived through it and wrote the viral Twitter thread that inspired the 2021 film “Zola.”

Despite the unthinkable circumstances, “Zola” is surprisingly relatable and groundbreaking in its portrayal of stripping as an empowering art form rather than something shameful. 

“Zola” was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020, and it definitely gives Sundance vibes. It’s shot in a documentary style and interspersed with dream-like sequences — the perfect mix of realism infused with magic. An early collection of scenes shows Zola quickly becoming engrossed with her new friend, Stefani: Zola lies prone on the couch, thumbs working as she and Stefani narrate their texts, the bubbles superimposed on the screen as the continuous whooshing of text messages serenades our ears, their new friendship growing into a mutual obsession. 

To show when time has passed, there is an accompanying shot of the building Zola finds herself in, with the date and time displayed in the same font as an iPhone lockscreen. These modern, tasteful embellishments make it aesthetically pleasing to watch. 

Furthermore, “Zola” contains enough touches of artsy symbolism to make me take it seriously. In one aerial shot, as Zola and Stefani pee in two stalls side-by-side, the movie memorably shows their respective urine. Zola’s is clear, while Stefani’s is a disturbingly dehydrated shade just shy of the color brown — unhealthy, just like Stefani’s personal boundaries, as viewers soon find out. 

In another scene, when Stefani’s pimp yells at her boyfriend and reasserts his dominance over the whole group, the camera pans over to the hotel room’s TV screen for an instant. There’s a low-quality porno playing, featuring a woman “struggling” to drive her car out of a ditch, saying “I’m stuck!” before the camera cuts from the TV back to Zola. This is a sardonic echo of the tense mood permeating Zola’s hotel room.

The character Zola feels so genuine; her cutting logic and matter-of-fact attitude naturally demands viewers’ support. The rest of the characters are presented in an authentically flawed way, their actions repulsing us — I know I’ve had interactions with those same unsavory characters in public. “Zola” convinced me, for an hour and a half, that I was in the backseat of a pimp’s G-Wagen, rooting for Zola all along her exhausting journey.

“‘Zola’ encourages the audience to view stripping as an art form and admire its aesthetic value without judgement.” —Rorye Jones PO ’23

Lastly, we have one of my favorite aspects of the film: its appreciative portrayal of stripping. Time and time again, we’ve seen movies use strippers as a cheap trick to arouse the viewer, reducing the dancers themselves to often nameless, writhing bodies onstage while simultaneously attaching a sense of immorality to the act. 

Stripping is obviously inherently sexual, and harnessing that sexuality can be powerful. That said, films should not be able to get away with exploiting the sensual nature of stripping while at the same time depicting strippers as “dirty.” 

The repeated objectification of strippers, combined with decrying their actions, creates a nasty sense of superiority that can bleed into society’s attitudes and fuel additional, unneeded violence targeting strippers. “Zola” references these hostile societal viewpoints in breaking the enchantment of a dancing scene with a man hurling a racist remark at Zola onstage. We feel for Zola’s jaded, disappointed-but-not-surprised facial expression.

“Zola” encourages the audience to view stripping as an art form and admire its aesthetic value without judgement. When Zola dances, the scene is awash in dreamy lights, multicolored tinsel swaying gently in the background and slow, sensual music. Through these effects, the viewer is clearly not meant to get their pulse racing from the dance number, but is instead invited to view Zola’s beauty and athleticism. 

The world isn’t all glittering dance sequences, but at the same time, one can depict harsh realities without sacrificing a dancer’s humanity; “Zola” does an excellent job at striking a balance between the two extremes. In short, please watch “Zola” — it is well worth the wild ride. 

Rorye Jones PO ’23 is TSL’s TV and film columnist. She spends her days waiting for the second season of “Euphoria” to drop so she can breathe in Alexa Demie’s dust once more. If you see her on campus, please feel free to assail her with unsolicited TV and film recommendations (actually).

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