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NPR Pop Culture Critic Tells Us All About 'Zola'

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

And finally today, we've seen the return of blockbusters to cinemas this summer. But now we also have the return of those smaller films that critics adore. And one of the movies in that category that's breaking out of the pandemic holding pattern is "Zola."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ZOLA")

TAYLOUR PAIGE: (As Zola) You want to hear a story about how me and this b**** fell out? It's kind of long, but it's full of suspense.

MCCAMMON: That is how a young woman from Detroit began a viral Twitter thread in 2015, and it's how the new movie version of her story begins as well. "Zola" tells the mostly true story of A'Ziah, or Zola, King. She's a waitress and exotic dancer who meets another dancer named Stefani, who immediately invites her to join her for a job down in Florida. Their impromptu road trip quickly goes south metaphorically as well as literally, and Zola finds herself in deeper than she'd ever imagined. Aisha Harris is one of the hosts of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour and a fan of "Zola's" since she saw it last year at Sundance. She joins me now. Welcome, Aisha.

AISHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Hi. Thank you for having me.

MCCAMMON: So first, some background here. This is one of the first, if not the first, movie to be inspired by a Twitter thread. Can you tell us a little bit more about its origin story and what made this ripe for an on-screen translation?

HARRIS: So in 2015, A'Ziah "Zola" King, who was a waitress and exotic dancer in Detroit, wrote a 148-long tweet thread about meeting this woman, a white woman who invited her to go down to Florida to get - to take a job dancing at a club. It would be a windfall, she was promised. And the story that unfolded was just enrapturing. The way Zola told the story was so vivid, full of so many details. Even if the story wasn't quite true or only mostly true, you could tell immediately when you're reading it that this could be a movie. This could be a TV show. It could be something made for the screen because you can imagine the characters and see the characters in your head.

MCCAMMON: You know, the film has a sort of lighthearted, road trip movie, chick flick vibe at times. But the subject matter is really heavy. I mean, it's about sex trafficking fundamentally. What do you make of that juxtaposition?

HARRIS: Well, I think what's interesting about seeing this translation from social media onto the screen is that the movie actually hews very closely to the Twitter thread. And many of the elements, including the topic of sex trafficking - those things come up in the social media thread as well. But the difference is that here, it's way more visceral, and you can kind of feel it more. I think so many of us were reading that thread, and it was more funny and more humorous. And here, when we see that juxtaposition happening and are able to really see this from the perspective of Zola, it feels even scarier. And people will have different feelings about it. I don't think it's necessarily the strongest aspect of the film, but I do think it's doing some interesting things with that juxtaposition.

MCCAMMON: Taylour Paige, the actor who plays Zola, the title character, of course - she gives a striking performance in this movie. In your review, you say the movie really hinges on her performance. Why?

HARRIS: Well, it is all about her eyes. And I think that one of the most interesting aspects of the way in which this movie has been translated from social media to the screen is the fact that when we were all reading this Twitter thread, we were reading it. It was all about the text. It was all about the written word and the written language. But here, we have all of these elements combined - visual, audio.

And I love how it really prioritizes, in many scenes, Taylour Paige's eyes and the way she's using them. She - whether she's shifting them, rolling them, she's able to convey so many emotions - distress, amusement, fascination, bewilderment, bafflement - all with her eyes, even when she is not speaking. And there is voice-over narration. There are lines that are taken directly from the Twitter thread. But really, I encourage everyone to just watch her eyes because to me, that is the real narrator of this film. And I just think it's really - it's - I think it's just such a great performance to watch.

MCCAMMON: Paige's counterpart is the woman who lures her into this road trip, which goes very wrong. She's played by Riley Keough, and she told NPR's Sam Sanders recently about playing a white woman who performs Blackness. Let's listen to a clip of that conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RILEY KEOUGH: In the beginning, it was like, OK, let's figure this out. Let's figure out what she's going to sound like, you know?

SAM SANDERS: Yeah.

KEOUGH: Because in the script, it's very clear that the dialect, the words she's using and the way she's speaking is, like, very clearly appropriation.

SANDERS: Yeah.

KEOUGH: So then the question was, do we go there? Is that what Janicza wanted to do with the accent as well? And it was.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAMMON: Tricky terrain for an actress. How well did she pull it off?

HARRIS: Oh, I think she pulls it off really, really well. And I think this is where the movie is at its strongest - is when it's interrogating this dynamic between Zola and Stefani and the way in which Zola reacts to Stefani's Blaccent (ph), her appropriation of Black culture. And I also think it's great that, in the interview that really gave, she talked about actually having a Black dialect coach coach her on how to do that voice.

And so it's just fun to know that this is something that is coming from a real place. They really tried to get it right, to teach her how to be a white woman who is appropriating this Blackness. And I really just think it's a really great example and one of the best examples of watching how we get to things like Iggy Azalea, the white Australian rapper, or even the cash me outside girl, who are white women who are very much appropriating Blackness and are also getting rewarded for it.

MCCAMMON: Now, this film is about women's agency. It's about power. It's certainly about racial politics, subjects that have been explored in film before. But it still - it feels like something different, you know, both visually and thematically. What do you think it is that makes "Zola" so unique?

HARRIS: You know, what I love most about this film and what I think it does so well is it really adapts the language of its source. It feels like a movie that came from Twitter in the best way possible. There are these little touches where you have text message exchanges that are, you know, spoken aloud as they're typing them instead of showing up on the screen. So you get this monotone way of speaking that sort of speaks to the zombie-like hold that Twitter and social media has on us. And I love that little touch.

And so I really hope people see this in theaters because there is just something about the the way in which we all kind of collectively watched this Twitter thread unfold that I think is also something that people should experience in the theater because when I saw it at Sundance, there were so many great reactions. You could tell everyone was really into the film, and it was engrossing. And I hope people get to experience that.

MCCAMMON: That's Aisha Harris, one of the hosts of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, telling us all about the movie "Zola," which is out in theaters now. Aisha, thanks for being with us.

HARRIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.