Hollywood may not have always known what to do with Janicza Bravo, but she certainly knew what to do with it. The visionary filmmaker behind “Zola,” one of the year’s most inventive and incisive films, Bravo has said her films don’t typically fit the mold of what the industry expects from Black women.
Her first film, “Lemon,” was about an insufferable white guy. And while no one is better equipped to skewer insufferable white guys than a brilliant Black woman, that’s a fact most risk-averse executives are not usually smart enough to understand. Luckily for Bravo, and everyone else, A24 and Christine Vachon got it.
Bursting onto the summer film slate after a long theatrical hiatus, “Zola” offered a triumphant welcome home for cinephiles. After months of watching movies at home, “Zola” was a rousing assault on all those dormant senses. Bursting with vivid color shot by rising star Ari Wegner, rushing with a dynamic score by Mica Levi, and edited to perfection by Bravo’s longtime collaborator Joi McMillon, “Zola” was the energizing tonic filmgoers needed for our pandemic-induced lethargy.
Bravo’s adventurous style and abrasive subject matter skews younger; needless to say, her divisive approach may not win her widespread fans among Academy voters. Still, if there’s any justice to this year’s awards season cycle, Bravo’s work will receive acknowledgement, and at least stands a good shot of recognition from the Independent Spirit Awards.
In any case, if a director’s job is to connect the best team under a shared vision and then getting out of their way, Bravo knocked it out of the park. But each of her collaborators also seem intrinsically guided by her unique sensibility, amplifying their own brilliance through her distinct voice. While Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O. Harris had an epic poem of a Twitter thread to work from for their inspired script, it was Bravo’s technical savvy and clearly executed vision that made “Zola” such a formally daring invention.
The opening seconds of “Zola” are emblematic of the sort of holistic filmmaking Bravo sets in motion: A harp cascades gently down and upscale, the camera slowly circles a sectional wall of green-lit mirrors, and two relaxed figures apply lipstick before popping their fingers out of their mouths in tandem. That pop, a universal soundtrack to femme routine, is elevated by Bravo’s attention to funky details. It’s funny, which she always is, but it’s also divine — a moment of unspoken connection across the vanity.
Bravo’s dark and often unnerving humor courses throughout “Zola,” and she utilizes every tool at her disposal to do so. While not as laugh-out-loud funny as A’Ziah King’s original Twitter thread, a wonderful feat of storytelling full of surprises and punchlines, the humor in “Zola” is subtler — and more insidious. Whether through an inspired cut or well-placed sound effect, comedy is infused into every corner of the film, cropping up in unexpected and uncomfortable places. Bravo doesn’t want her audience to laugh too hard, or for too long, without an awareness of something else in play.
As the best writers do, she filters her own experience through the characters. After a gorgeous turn on the pole, where Zola dances circles around everyone in the club, Zola is jerked out of her reverie by a dopey white guy. “You look a lot like Whoopi Goldberg,” he says as he sticks a dollar in her G-string. Bravo has talked about experiencing this particular inane micro-aggression, though not after delivering a tour-de-force pole dance.
Other choices feel less pointed but just as unique, like the seemingly random presence of a white guy playing steel drums in an empty hotel lobby. A single white woman sways along, her long untamed hair swinging behind her. Blandly inoffensive at first, the buoyant tones become a discordant hum when heard a second time, turning from benign to menacing simply by taking up air. Some cuts are straight up devastating, like a billowing shot of an enormous Confederate flag over 2Chainz singing: “You waving that thing in the sky/We waving that thing at your body/We waving that thing at your eye.”
After years of working together, McMillon and Bravo have a shared sensibility that makes magic. The montage of Stefani’s seeing multiple clients in one night, a whimsical scroll of male body parts over a particularly jaunty Levi track, stands out as a brilliant solution to a complex problem. Though Stefani’s relationship with her pimp is certainly abusive, the film is careful not to denigrate the actual work of sex work. Zola looks away in a kind of disgust, but she is outwardly supportive of Stefani’s choices, even revamping her business model. The montage feels neither salacious nor judgmental; broken down to their requisite parts, each client is simply another frame, another dollar. Making movies and making house calls are just two sides of the same coin.
“Zola” is now available on VOD from A24.