Janicza Bravo’s cinematography is difficult to pin down. You can describe her work with words such as surreal, disturbing and satirical.
Bravo laughs, “These are all very nice, sexy terms to me.”
“Zola,” which A24 will release Wednesday in theaters, offers a vivid glimpse at Bravo’s 40-year-old status as an emerging filmmaker. It is the film that debuted at Sundance 2020 in January 2020. It is the most anticipated movie of the summer. It’s quite possibly the first feature film to be adapted from a tweet thread — an infamous, mostly truthful 148-tweet story from 2015in Which A’Ziah King shared about a Florida road trip that takes him to a stripclub that is horrifyingly south.
Bravo’s viral tweet storm is a fairy tale-like “Wizard of Oz”, that turns into a nightmare. It’s a hallucinogenic, but clear-eyed, adventure through sex, social media and violence that’s both fantastical yet darkly real. Comedy and horror are intertwined. Movies and the internet are also intertwined.
Bravo says, “I think it very much remains a ride.” It’s not always pleasant, but I don’t know.
Even for Bravo’s closest collaborators it can be difficult to explain the style and feeling of Bravo’s dreamlike, disorienting movies. Katie Byron, her production designer, approached her mid-production of “Zola” and asked if Bravo had taken a lot ketamine.
Bravo says, “I’m unfortunately a bit straight edge.” I’m attracted to work that feels bigger than life. It’s right next to it. It’s a familiar feeling, but we move to 11.
Bravo’s filmmaking of “life at high volumes” has won wide admiration. 2013’s “Gregory Goes Boom” featured Michael Cera as an afflicted paraplegic. Jeremy O. Harris, “Slave Play,” playwright, saw it at Sundance. He fell in love with the film. He thought Bravo was Polish because of her name. Bravo was actually born in New York, but she was raised in Panama and moved to Brooklyn at the age of 12. Bravo’s style is a result of Bravo’s parents being tailors.
Harris said, “The thing I loved about that movie then and all her films since, is that she has this very clever, chaotic way of dealing the darkest truths in American history while making it funny,” Harris shared while he was still recovering from a hangover after picking up smoothies at a Fort Greene, Brooklyn, “Zola” screening.
Bravo became close friends with Harris seven years ago. Bravo approached Harris to help him write “Zola” when the opportunity presented itself. Harris sees “Zola,” as more than just a Hollywood breakthrough.
Harris says, “This is a moment for profound catching up.” Harris says that the work she has done is so thorough that people don’t think they had a Rosetta Stone to learn the language she spoke. It’s rare to hear a Black woman speak complex languages in independent cinema.
James Franco directed “Zola” at the beginning of the film’s creation. According to the filmmakers, that version of the film was more relaxed. Bravo and Harris approached King’s Twitter thread with more respect. It was a colourfully told, often humorous tale that introduced phrases such as “vibing above our hoeism” to the lexicon. Bravo and Harris saw the thread as a modern-day Homeric epic. They wanted to place the film in Zola’s eyes and show how Black women can be considered disposable and the traumatizing consequences of white appropriation.
King, an executive producer, says that Janicza joined the film. “It became more about me voice when Janicza came aboard.” Her tweets were published in a hardcover cloth-bound book.
The film features Zola (played in the film by Taylour Paige) as a Detroit waitress. Her newfound friend, a customer she is waiting on, Stefani, (Riley Keough), encourages her to join her on a weekend trip to Florida to party and make some money stripping. Keough portrays Stefani as she imitates Zola’s mannerisms. Harris describes it as a blackface but without makeup. We see how Stefani drags Zola into an awful situation.
“Zola,” a film about whiteness, turns the camera on its head. This theme is a common one in Bravo’s works, including her previous feature, “Lemon”, which was about an unappealing actor who was made with frequent collaborator Brett Gelman. She’s also currently working on a series with Jake Gyllenhaal, playing Dan Mallory (pen name A.J.). Finn, the best-selling novelist, was discovered to have created a brain tumor and a tragic history for himself. Bravo often treats whiteness as neutral and invisible. Bravo’s experience is the exact opposite.
Bravo says, “I wanted to have a conversation with whiteness. I wanted to talk about that because I hadn’t seen anyone do that in comedy.” “Usually, when it was about race, it was explicitly about race. It is something that interests me to incorporate race into my daily life. This is what it feels like for me. It is my personal processing of feeling restricted or less than, and how it feels to wear this skin on this body.”
“Zola”, while still a thrill ride, hides its thoughtful mediations. Every time King tweets a bit of dialogue, a Twitter ding sounds almost like slot-machine sound effects. It’s something King considers “priceless”.
It’s like a time-traveling moment when I watch the movie. It’s almost like I forget where I am, and then I remember that I’m back in 2015. King says she really captures the image. It feels almost like Twitter. It does. It feels like you are in the internet, from the lighting to the chimes and the quotes.
Bravo’s ability to make the familiar seem exotic, regardless of her international heritage or artistic instincts, is perfectly matched in “Zola,” which has one foot in real life, and another in an ethereal, digital reality. She says the movie is a love letter for the story’s birthplace, the internet.
Bravo explains that the reason it was made was because of what the internet suggested. Bravo says that it was this type of theatre event in October 2015. It was a theater event in October 2015. The audience clamored for it, and it was catapulted. The day ended with the phrase: This must be made into movie. It was.