It may not be a first and it certainly won’t be the last, but new movie Zola gives pause with the credit that it is “based on the tweets”—not a book, not a play, not a “life,” but arguably the highest-profile communication mode (I’d say “literary form,” but then I’d have to kill myself) of the last few years.
148 Twitter posts, to be exact, which went viral after one Aziah King, aka Zola, sent them out during the course of one very wild weekend in October 2015. Celebrities climbed onboard this trainwreck of a digital Iliad to express their admiration and astonishment; the suddenly-kinda-famous real life principals self-servingly disagreed on details, while confirming that at least something like King’s account did occur.
Originally James Franco was supposed to direct a film version, but then sexual misconduct allegations against him made the star an unworkable choice to steer a film about sexual trafficking of women.
So instead Zola wound up in the hands of Janicza Bravo, whose prior feature Lemon (2017) was a very stylized and very, very sour black comedy that I liked quite a bit, though that appears to have been a minority reaction. This is, if anything, an even more perverse exercise, playing a tale of sleaze, deception, prostitution, and threatened violence (occasionally acted on) as sardonic farce. It’s a very accomplished film, titillating and WTF-funny—the most obvious comparison point might be Spring Breakers, albeit with a brain—but at the same time such a queasy reflection of a current American underbelly that you might feel the need to get steam-cleaned afterward.
Our narrator Zola (Taylour Paige) is a waitress at a restaurant (in reality it was a Detroit Hooter’s) who meets cheerfully trash-talking Stefani (Riley Keough) as a customer. When they ask one another “Do you dance?,” we quickly suss it’s not ballet they’re talking about, but the kind involving poles. They click, so soon Stefani is asking Zola if she wants to road-trip to Florida that weekend to make a lot of cash dancing at clubs there. (This is reportedly not unusual: Such establishments often allow visiting out-of-town performers, since everybody drums up more $$ when patrons are seeing new faces, and, er, new booties.)
By the end of the twenty-hour drive to Tampa, Zola is already worried she’s made a big mistake, but it’s too late then to back out. She can only attempt to preserve some personal boundaries as it becomes clear that Stefani’s “friend” known as X (former SF stage actor Colman Domingo) is also her pimp, and that he expects to coerce Zola into the world’s oldest profession as well. This is horrifying not just to our heroine, but also to the fourth member of the party, Stefani’s sweet, dopey, long-suffering bf Derek (Nicholas Braun).
While Zola is no naif, suffice it to say things rapidly degenerate in ways she did not anticipate…and that’s even before guns, johns, gang-bangs, and suicide attempts enter the “colorful” narrative. Needless to say, it’s all somehow in keeping with the background of Central Florida. There, strip clubs next to liquor stores next to gun stores provide omnipresent illustration of how an ostensibly conservative state’s notion of unrestrained capitalism can somehow turn into an encyclopedia of “What Jesus wouldn’t do.”
In the spirit that most people took the original tweet thread, Zola offers itself as a vicarious walk on the low-end wild side in which the viewer is perpetually amazed at how shameless, dumb, scary, reckless, etc. its characters’ behaviors are. These people are not brainiacs; Zola seems wildly superior to her companions simply for having some scruples and keeping a level head. Derek is a fool, Stefani can’t open her mouth without a lie falling out, and Z grows ever more terrifying. (His real-life model was soon sent to prison for myriad crimes, including rape, after another “road trip” of coerced sex trafficking turned out even worse.) The actors dig into their spectacular roles with relish, stopping short of overt caricature or condescension—not an easy task, since these are personalities you might normally dash across six busy highway lanes just to get away from.
Still, it’s hard to recommend Zola, because in making an entertaining spectacle of a pretty appalling story, it invites us to laugh at lives born of America’s failing educational system, income inequality, systemic monetizing of sexual exploitation, et al. This is a comedy that may well leave you depressed. And if it doesn’t, that in itself is pretty depressing—because it suggests we’re fine with living in a post-empathy era, where other people’s grave, probably lifelong misfortunes are funny because “they stupid.” Zola opens Wed/30 at numerous Bay Area theaters, with On Demand release expected a week or so later.
Zola takes liberties with a presumably at-least-somewhat-true story, but three current documentaries newly arrived in theaters and/or streaming formats do their best to just stick with the facts, ma’am:
A CRIME ON THE BAYOU
Nancy Buirski’s artful feature, now playing in theaters including the Embarcadero and Shattuck Cinemas, is a potent reminder of what the Civil Rights Movement had to overcome in the South in the 1960s—as well as an implicit indictment of systemic racism those states’ conservative politicians seem hellbent on bringing back.
In 1966, 19-year-old fisherman Gary Duncan stopped a potential fight between black and white students outside the high school in Plaquesmines Parish, Louisiana. In doing so he at one point briefly put his hand on the elbow of a white boy—the son of area kingpin Leander Perez, a flaming bigot who’d vigorously opposed the educational desegregation newly being forced on his “turf.”
As a result, the African-American Duncan was handed trumped-up assault charges, then when that didn’t stick, harassed and arrested repeatedly simply to intimidate him. But he (and his infuriated mother) refused to admit guilt for anything, eventually gaining an activist lawyer in northerner Richard B. Sobol, who took their fight all the way to the Supreme Court. Arriving not long after the centenary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, this is another overlooked chapter of great significance in US race relations, one that Buirski tells with an engrossing, flavorful mix of archival materials and testimony from the still-living protagonists themselves.
TRUMAN & TENNESSEE: AN INTIMATE CONVERSATION
A very different kind of mid-20th-century Southern story is told by another documentary playing the Embarcadero, Shattuck, Rafael@Home, and other venues. Though they worked primarily in different literary forms, the famous novelist-journalist Truman Capote and his elder by 13 years, the famous playwright Tennessee Williams, were both Southern queer boys of great talent who forged a lasting if bumpy friendship early on. Each enjoyed a career breakthrough in the mid/late 1940s, then rode high throughout the next decade. But Williams began a long, painful artistic and commercial decline in the early 1960s, while Capote’s success only increased for a while.
Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s film uses Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto as voice actors, reading passages from the two men’s correspondence and other writings on the soundtrack, while we see the real deals separately holding court on TV talk shows, particularly as interviewed by David Frost and Dick Cavett. Those excerpts show Williams as a bashful slightly goofy charmer, while Capote indulges in what his friend aptly laments as “bitchery”—often aimed at his own allies, like Tennessee. Such oblivious mean-spiritedness would make Truman’s later years lonely, self-piteous ones, after the NYC society figures he’d courted, then humiliated in print cut him dead.
This rather artificial “intimate conversation” is like a fluff celebrity TV portrait, trading in gossip and film clips (from the movie or TV versions of both authors’ works, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Cold Blood, and so many Williams adaptations featuring Elizabeth Taylor). It assumes basic familiarity with the subjects’ major works, and any viewer with that knowledge is likely to also be familiar with the superficial biographical errata purveyed here. Truman & Tennessee offers no new insights on two of the most exhaustively dissected American creative lives of the 20th century, Still, it’s diverting enough, and would provide a painless crash course for theater students and others who’ve just begun to learn about the central figures.
LYDIA LUNCH: THE WAR IS NEVER OVER
The ways in which those two men sought to challenge staid audiences seems terribly genteel alongside the subject of Beth B.’s documentary. Fleeing a rough upbringing in Rochester as a teen in 1976, Lydia Lunch nee Koch arrived in NYC just in time to ride the punk scene’s breaking first waves in a series of bands starting with No Wave trailblazers Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. She also acted in envelope-pushing underground films by the likes of Richard Kern, did furious spoken-word performances, and worked in other media, what one observer calls her “pure energy of opposition” always resisting any hint of commercialism.
Like the discordant music she’s often been a frontperson for, Lunch remains in all things a confrontative “indictment against authority.” Here, she’s frank about both her abused youth and her own being “a successful predator…demanding my pleasure from whoever I wanted” in part to “wash off the taste of my father.” Like other artists who seem primarily driven by anger 24/7, she can be grating and monotonous, even in a general appreciation-slash-career overview just 75 minutes long.
Longtime colleague B’s film, which features input from fellow travelers from Thurston Moore to Donita Sparks, could be better organized to sustain our attention. Still, Lunch is a formidable original who was overdue to get her own dedicated screen tribute, and this one is good enough to get the job done. It’s available for streaming through KinoMarquee.com as of Wed/30; the Roxie Theatre will make it available through their virtual cinema as of Fri/2, with an on-site screening (plus live Lunch appearance) August 6.