Sisterhood as a Weapon in ‘Zola’

'Zola' shows how women can use sisterhood as a weapon, but the power of sisterhood can also be used as a protective shield.

A24
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Although it begins with the melodic strums of a harp, Janicza Bravo’s Zola creates an almost immediate contradiction to its angelic score by offering the following as an opening line: “You wanna hear a story about how me and this bitch here fell out? It’s kinda long but it’s full of suspense.” The prolonged sense of dramatic irony that ensues from Zola’s opening scene until its climactic end only adds to the flurry of unease that ripples throughout the movie. What follows is a dazzling blur in which we find our central figure, Zola (Taylour Paige), swept up into the horrors of a weekend gone wrong thanks to the actions of the unstable Derrek (Nicholas Braun), violent men (Colman Domingo and Jason Mitchell), and the woman who uses the perception of sisterhood as a weapon against her (Stefani, played by Riley Keough). 

Before we witness Zola and Stefani’s introduction, Zola first showcases the only other direct conversation Zola has with another woman onscreen. Her coworker Gail (Nelcie Souffrant) drones on, sharing complaint after complaint while refusing to assist in any of their workplace duties or pausing her self-centered statements to see how Zola herself is doing. Zola, meanwhile, stands seemingly checked out, a non-participatory member of the conversation at hand.

Her agitation feels almost palatable and is only alleviated by the intriguing appearance of Stefani, who in many ways is the exact opposite of Gail. Here, Stefani lays on the charm immediately and enthusiastically. Though skeptical, Zola seems intrigued by her charisma, but it is not until Stefani breaks the barrier between customer and server that the connection between the two women begins to form. Stefani’s insistence that she feels as though she and Zola have previously met is one that many women may find relatable. The joking yet revered nature of the bonds that form in women’s restrooms at busy bars is rooted in a truth its occupants know well; struggles or traumas around womanhood often provide a bridge between women who meet as strangers but walk away unified by a sense of created sisterhood.

The sisterhood formed between Stefani and Zola emerges through the shared experiences of dancing: after Stefani reveals her involvement in the scene, Zola discloses that she dances too. Stefani’s unwavering eye contact, her sharing of snippets of her own experiences, and her bubbly nature are a lure to Zola, drawing her into a seemingly instant sisterhood.

From there, the two spend a night together that rivals cosmic intervention. Seated together in the club after dancing, Stefani and Zola share an exchange of words that provides, alongside its direct quotes, a hidden language of sisterhood. As Stefani offers an enthusiastic “Yes, sis! [I see you.]”, Zola counters with an equally energetic “On God! [I feel seen. I feel heard.].” From there, the usage of “sis” as a placeholder for names is constant, providing a literal expression of the fast-formed bond between Zola and Stefani.

Outside of the club, Stefani shares an image of her infant daughter, further breaking down the barriers between these strangers to welcome Zola into her private life. Zola reciprocates the expression of vulnerability by giving Stefani her Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter handles, which provide a more in-depth look into Zola’s life. Such is a common trend in their relationship: Stefani offers far more personal details than Zola, but Zola often ends up mirroring Stefani’s advances of vulnerability to a certain extent. While some may interpret these moments as attempts at genuine connection, given the allusion to trouble in Zola’s opening scene, it is easier to see Stefani’s perceived vulnerability as a tactic designed to lure Zola further into a relationship based on false pretenses. 

The moments of perceived sisterhood Stefani initiates allow her to abruptly suggest that the two women take a trip to Florida to dance. Despite a lack of information, Zola leans into the opportunity partly because of the financial benefits, although it is easy to assume that there is also a part of her that welcomes the opportunity thanks to the perceived relationship that she now has with Stefani. Stefani’s actions allow for a false sense of trust to be established between the two women, one that draws Zola away from her home and into a situation that leaves her hours away from anyone she knows or who would be willing to help her.

Similar instances in which women are drawn away from healthier, more welcoming environments in favor of perceived sisterhood appear elsewhere in cinema. Mean Girls, for example, does this much more overtly through the relationship of Cady (Lindsay Lohan) and Regina (Rachel McAdams), although both women are operating with hidden agendas here. The women of Martha Marcy May Marlene showcase another example of sisterhood as a weapon: here, the women, led in part by Marcy (Elizabeth Olsen), operate under the directions of their cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) in order to lure more women into the abusive environment of the cult through a shared sense of sisterhood.

These moments are examples of violence, though they are rarely bloody. The violence associated with sisterhood as a weapon is instead more often one of psychological or emotional abuse, in which women are broken down until they are unable to fight back against the ones they were convinced to trust. Zola’s refreshing victory comes thanks to the titular character’s unwavering self-prioritization, regardless of the situations unfolding around her. She remains level-headed, despite being placed in dangerous situation after dangerous situation as she follows along with Stefani.

On the drive to Tampa, Zola’s cinematographer Ari Wenger provides the audience with the first glimpse of the dangers that Zola is unknowingly hurtling towards. Close to the hotel, a shot of a Confederate flag waves in the air. While only brief, the shot provides an alarm bell for those familiar with the flag’s connotations. Although it’s likely not even a fleeting concern for Stefani, a white woman, such a display is a definite concern for a Black woman such as Zola.

Further instances of external threats present themselves throughout the weekend. The first is Zola’s encounter with the first man to visit Stefani in their hotel room, who bluntly says that he only wants to be with a white woman. Then, the following night, Stefani, her boyfriend Derrek, and Zola drive past a man being brutalized by police on the side of the road. These instances stack up to build an atmosphere of danger, not only within the group Zola is accompanying but also around her, ensuring she remains trapped in the situation she finds herself in.

During the direst of moments within the group, Stefani’s support as a friend reveals itself to be highly conditional. As X (Domingo) threatens Zola’s life in the car, Stefani remains facing forward, silent, and no longer an ally to Zola. Her apologies over the situation rarely come in front of others, instead being offered only when the two women are alone in hotel rooms or bathrooms. Moreover, after X threatens Derrek with a gun, Stefani denies any role in the situation, despite it being her who lured Zola there under false pretenses in the first place.

Stefani relies repeatedly on her established sisterhood with Zola to keep the two amicable despite the clear and growing tension. The final words she speaks to Zola demonstrate her complete denial of the harm she has caused through her attempted sisterhood with Zola. Accompanied by a pleading expression, she announces, “Girl, you know I love you.” Zola meets her statement with silence, and through voice-over, we once again hear the opening tell-tale statement: “You wanna hear how me and this bitch here fell out? It’s kinda long but it’s full of suspense.” The tie between the two women based on their shared experiences is fully broken by the exchange, and a sense of relief accompanies the knowledge that Zola will no longer excuse or forgive the actions that have put her in harm’s way for days. 

Zola’s victories repeatedly come throughout the film in the form of her unwillingness to abandon her empathy in the face of Stefani’s weaponized sisterhood. Where Stefani uses their sisterhood as a weapon, Zola counteracts this by using it as a shield. Zola repeatedly steps up to stand alongside Stefani (albeit sometimes unwillingly), whether helping her set a better price on Backpage, calming down a frantic Derrek, or running for help when Stefani is snatched by a rival hustler (Mitchell). Again and again, Zola’s humanity shines in an environment where many would abandon it completely. Her actions show that while there are women who will use sisterhood as a weapon to advance only themselves, there are still women willing to uphold the power of sisterhood as a shield, protecting, in whatever way possible, their fellow women. 

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