Janicza Bravo

6.5 Lemon (2017)
7.2 Zola (2020)

After a number of short films and some television work, Janicza Bravo debuted with Lemon (2017).

Zola (2020), based on a real story that went viral on Twitter, is filmed in an ebullient style with sometimes unorthodox visuals (like shooting a peeing woman from the top of the bathroom stall). The first half is explosive thanks to multiple narrative tricks, mostly anchored to the digital world. The second half can't quite sustain that electricity and ends with a non-ending. The tone of the film is comic, tragic, depressing, shocking, violent, romantic, exhilarating. It runs the whole spectrum of emotions, and that's probably the faithful representation of a day in the life of a stripper. It's the equivalent of Ridley Scott's Thelma & Louise (1991) for the world of strippers, or a less glamorous version of Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls (1995).

The story is narrated by Zola. Zola is a black waitress in a family restaurant. One night she waits on a white blond who is sitting at a table with her fat black boyfriend. The white blond, Stefani, is attracted to Zola and invites her on a date. They hit a nightclub and perform as pole dancers. Zola practices pole dancing at home, an apartment she shares with a boyfriend. Stefani gets an engagement in Florida to perform as a stripper and invites Zola to join her. Stefani, Zola, Stefani's white boyfriend Derrek (who looks mildly retarded) and Stefani's black roommate leave on a road trip to Florida. It's a long trip, and the hyper-active Stefani is beginning to get on Zola's nerves, but they finally reach Florida. They take a room at a cheap motel. That evening Zola's black roommate drives them to the nightclub where they perform, certain to make a lot of money. However, it soon become obvious that it is a low-class nightclub for poor people. Before and after the show, Stefani takes many selfies of herself with Zola. Zola is outraged when she finds out that Zola's black roommate has posted those pictures on a website where prostitutes sell sex. Zola tries to get out of the car but Zola's black roommate threatens her. X drives them to a luxuty hotel and drops the pretenses: he is Stefani's pimp. Zola is mad at Stefani for getting her in this mess, but Stefani cries that she is scared and just wanted to make a friend. Stefani gets ready for her customer, a white man. After the sex, Zola, who witnessed the whole scene, is shocked to see that Zola is charging very little for the sex. Zola suddenly decides to help Stefani. Zola grabs Stefani's phone and modifies the advertisement with better pictures of Stefani and a much higher price for just 15 minutes. Zola reads a book while in the next room Stefani has sex with one customer after the other. Meanwhile, Derreck, worried that he has no news from Stefani, is hanging out near the hotel and is approached by a man who lives in the neighborhood, Dion. At the same time, Zola's boyfriend back home is worried because he has no news from Zola. Eventually, Stefani calls Derreck and pretends that she has just been performing all night. Derreck is obvously oblivious to Stefani's prostitute business. In the morning Zola's pimp comes to see the girls and is amazed to find out that Stefani made so much money in one night. Zola's pimp recognizes that Zola is a better "pimp" than him and even gives her some money. They return to their motel room to find Derreck chatting with his new friend, Dion. Zola's pimp is concerned that this Dion could be a gangster ready to rob them and kill them, so they move to another hotel, this time is a classy one. Zola would still prefer to leave but the pimp is clear that she's not allowed to. The mildly retarded Derreck is hurt to learn that Stefani is prostituting again and, listening to them arguing, Zola realizes that Stefani has done it before: lure other girls into prostitution. An angry Derreck reveals that Zola is a prostitute on social media that Zola is a prostitute to embarrass her in front of her family, but the pimp finds out in time and forces him to delete the post. We learn that his name is Abegunde, and he partners with a fat white woman, Baybe, who threatens Derreck with a gun. Zola and Derreck drive Stefani to night appointments with rich customers at their mansions. One is an appointment with a whole gang. Zola is worried but Stefani doesn't mind. Now the film stops and rewinds and we hear Stefani's version: she is a religious girl who was in the restaurant with her community leader Jonathan when Zola hit on her and lured her to Florida where they became prostitutes and Zola was jealous because Stefani was more popular. But the real story resumes. Derreck drops Zola and Stefani at a luxury hotel. Zola follows Stefani to the hotel room of the customer and runs away terrified when the customer attacks Stefani violently. Zola calls Abegunde and Derreck for help. Abegunde arrives with a gun and tries to force his way into the hotel room but the door opens and... Derreck's friend Dion, armed with a much bigger gun. Dion was indeed out to rob them. Abegunde, Derreck and Zola are taken prisoners of Dion and his accomplice, while Stefani lies unconscious on the floor. Dion and his buddy are amateurs and Abegunde easily fools them and disarms them, and shoots Dion. Abegunde drives everybody to Baybe's luxurious mansion Zola who has witnessed everything silently demands to leave. This time Abegunde allows her. Derreck would like Stefani to leave with her, but Stefani instead decides to stay with Abegunde. A desperate Derreck threatens to kill himself. As Stefani ignores him, Derreck jumps from the balcony. He doesn't die but is badly injured. Abegunde has to drive him to the hospital.
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