ABOVE PHOTO: Colman Domingo poses for a portrait to promote the film “Zola” at the Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)
By Kharisma McIlwaine
Once upon a time in 2015, there was a viral story that was almost too wild to believe making waves on Twitter. The story was told by A’Ziah-Monae “Zola” King, a stripper who went on a spur of the moment, out-of -state trip to Florida with a woman named Stefani that she met the night before. This trip resulted in Zola being thrust into a web of sex work via Backpage (without her permission), a few terrifying run-ins with pimps, kidnapping and gun violence. Reading the story typed out 140 characters at a time was exhilarating, to say the least.
A24 Films presents audiences with the same riveting story with the film adaptation of “Zola.” Directed by Janicza Bravo, with a screenplay by Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris, the film stars Taylour Paige as Zola, Riley Keough as Stefani, Nicholas Braun as Derrek and Colman Domingo as X.
West Philadelphia native Domingo sat down with The SUN to discuss what drew him to the script, his experience embodying such a dark character and the deeper takeaway from this story.
Domingo was first introduced to Zola’s story via the script.
“I read the first few pages and I thought it was incredible,” he said.“I had never read anything like it — the language, the storytelling and the idea that the source material came from a series of tweets was mind-boggling to me. Then I went back and [re]read the Twitter feed and said this really is incredible storytelling.”
Domingo is known for taking on multifaceted characters. The role of X, however, was very different from any other character he had ever played.
“When I knew that Janicza wanted me to play the character of X, the first thing I thought was ‘What does she think of me for this role?’” he said with a laugh. “Most people have seen me play loving fathers, interesting sponsors of troubled youth and now to play a pimp. I thought Janicza understood me as an actor. She knew that I would hopefully give some grounding and humanity to this very complex, terrifying character.”
X is indeed terrifying — but he is equally charming. Domingo brilliantly balances the dichotomy of the character.
“Here’s a character where I really had to find out why I love him, so I don’t judge him and that’s a really tricky thing for an actor,” he said. “It was a great challenge for me to really understand this man — who traffics women — to look at his heart and soul, what he wants and needs, even though he’s absolutely the villain. “I wanted to actually not look at him through the point of view of villain. Whatever human is, human does. He’s just a human being trying to have agency in the world with what he knows best to do… which is terrifying things.”
There are several frightening and anxiety inducing elements in this film. Thankfully, there was also familiarity and trust already established between Taylour Paige and Domingo. The two shared screen time in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” as well, which was filmed after “Zola.”
“I loved it and I made her laugh the whole time, because I’m so terrible in the film,” Domingo said. “We’re really loving and really sweet to each other, so the idea that I could play a character so terrifying would just crack her up sometimes. We had a great sense of humor about it, which allowed her to go to some deeper places and be emotionally vulnerable in some scenes.”
On the surface, “Zola” is a story about two strippers and a road trip that leads to disaster. After digging deeper, the viewer is also presented with a number of “Easter eggs” that speak directly to the current state of society within the context of race, police brutality and cultural appropriation.
“I think it’s such a unique film where we can go to the movie theatre together and unpack our stuff together… the cultural appropriation, the subtle racism and the most blatant racism,” Domingo said. “Even the idea that the character Stefani feels very comfortable talking about nappy headed women. The fact that she feels emboldened and empowered by it by thinking that she’s close to it and she admires it in some way. There’s a lot of those blurred lines about racism that are being unpacked here in sort of a satirical way.”
“Zola” also shines a bright light on the problems birthed from lack of forethought. Throughout the film, characters move with reckless abandonment, thus getting themselves in extremely dangerous situations.
“Everything has such high stakes, and these are characters that are very colorful,” Domingo said. “No one is pressing the pause button. Everyone is going headfirst into it and paying the price later. Everything is moving so fast, the world is spinning so fast, but it’s about everyone going for what they want and what they know. It’s really helping us hold up a mirror to our culture in America and what do we value. We are just presented with what is, and we have to figure it out later.”
“Zola” is a cautionary tale on how quickly life can unravel by trusting the wrong people. It is also incredibly entertaining from start to finish with hilarious performances, artistic approaches to combining the world of texts, tweets and real life and the characters, while flawed, are endearing. Additionally, the film gives audiences an unfiltered view into the dark aspects of sex work. The advertisements for the film refer to the falling out between Zola and Stefani, letting viewers know that this story is full of suspense… and it is!
Whether you read the story of Zola on Twitter or the film is your first introduction, “Zola” is unforgettable and will leave viewers on the edge of their seats. It opens in theaters nationwide on June 30. Check your local listings for showtimes.
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