‘Zola’ Sets Out a Clear Line Between Sex Work and Sex Trafficking that you won’t Forget

Zola, although it’s fun, and you’re laughing and there’s music, dancing, underneath it’s like, ‘Oh, this is her processing her trauma through something’ that was actually a very dangerous situation.”

Joi McMillon, Editor of the film ‘Zola’

The film Zola tells the story of a black girl of the same name (played by Taylour Paige) who is lured into a bizarre road trip by her new friend Stephani (Riley Keough). The plan is to get to a high-end strip club in order to dance for a quick come-up. However, Zola quickly finds out that she is the only one on this trip who does NOT know the real score. Stephani’s boyfriend Derrick (Nicholas Braun) is a butler, slash pawn/fall guy for the scheme, and X (played by Coleman Domingo) is the one holding the cards and Zola’s plane ticket home.

Riley Keough (left) stars as”Stefani” and Taylour Paige (right) stars as “Zola” in director Janicza Bravo’s ZOLA, an A24 Films release. Credit: A24 Films

Sex Work vs. Sex Trafficking

This is the setup where McMillon’s words come to life. She is referring to the sex trafficking theme that lurks alongside the main story. It threatens Zola every which way she turns and the fear it not subtle. Here’s where the delineation happens. Remember two things:

The Oxford Reference defines sex work as “…paid employment in the sex industry, comprising prostitution and pornography. The term is used to emphasize the commonality between work in this industry and other, more conventional occupations.” 

The same resource defines human trafficking (the larger category that sex trafficking belongs to) as, “The illegal recruitment and transportation of human beings for the purpose of exploitation, often through the use of force and coercion, including fraud, deception, and abduction.” 

One is consentual and considered employment, while the other is exploitive and uses dangerous means. In most Hollywood productions, the line between these two are often muddied. For example, Julia Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman is a sex worker. However, the story treats her positon as if it is one that she exploited into and does not want to be in.


Colman Domingo. Photo By: Anna Kooris, A24

The vagueries appear in the form of dialogue from her companion, played by Richard Geer, and his friends. they are rich people who are shown to be judgemental, but the line between sex work and sex trafficking is left unclear. The tradition ends with Zola.

How Zola Skirts the Line Well

At some point slong this trip, the fun stops and the fear becomes almost palpable. However, before the dangerous sex trafficking is revealed, the audeince is given several lessons on what sex work is, how women empower one another through it and how a woman finds her worth in the work. When the sex trafficing really begins to emerge, there is no mistake between that dangerous beast and sex work. No doubt or question. This is part of the genius of Zola.

The audience feele the danger before Zola does. She is busy trying to keep her sanity and her life long enough to get that ticket. The characters become a dysfunctional family of sorts for a hot second between disasters. This makes Zola even more entertaining. The film is for grown folks as it shows lots of sex, stripping, and violence. Player’s Club can only wish it had this type of freedom. The story is told in a new style that Bravo played with expertly to temper the comedy. Social media, narrative fourth wall breaks, and a surprise plot twist in the middle that attempts (and fails) to flip the script on Zola are all hilarious and worth following with an open mind.

Ain’t Nothing Wrong With Being a Heaux

(L-R) Janicza Bravo, Riley Keough, Taylour Paige Photo By: Anna Kooris, A24

In one way, however, Zola does prove to be much more evolved than her 90s aunties, in that sex is treated like a human act. Being a “heaux” is neither an insult or a trifling label. It’s a word for a sexually active and independent woman. Sex work is also treated differently–it’s just work. Bravo forces us at many points to marvel at the control and athleticism that the ladies put into their trade. It’s a job that pays, and one that Zola is proud of.

This evolved look at sex also means defining domestic violence and sexual exploitation, which Bravo does and well. At one point, Zola gives Stephani a talk about knowing her worth and being proud of her trade if this is what she intends to do. The empowerment they have when X isn’t in control clearly shows the line between sex work and exploitation.

Some of Y’all Won’t Get It

Bravo turns A’ Ziah King’s infamous Twitter thread into a film that entertains while educating those still stuck with archaic ideas about sex, sex work, and sex trafficking. the film needs to be a high school esex education class staple–in a country still believes that abstinence is foolproof, that will never happen. That’s why I hope you women see Zola and bring their friends. You will not be disappointed.

Watch Zola in theaters July 2, everywhere.

Rating 4.5 of 5

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