Looking Daggers at Whiteness: "Zola" and other Janicza Bravo Films

The latest feature from Janicza Bravo continues and expands upon her earlier films and their efforts to examine whiteness..
A.E. Hunt


Before the outgrowth of incel culture, the on-screen representation of antisocial, white American males peaked in the early 2000s. With the success of films like 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) and Superbad (2007)and the glut of R-Rated coming of age sex comedies that followed, Hollywood became a lucrative “empathy machine” for the white boys and men who once lurked on the sidelines of the screen. Nerds with hearts of gold were getting laid in the movies and quirky actors like Michael Cera spearheaded the cause. In fact, Hollywood did a pretty good job representing white men of all ages, bodies and personality types dating women who epitomized the contrived beauty standards of a given moment. A few years later, Janicza Bravo also centered the virginal white male in her filmography, but examined their potential menace and perversions. Casting Michael Cera as the scrutinized subject of her dark-comedy shorts Gregory Go Boom (2013) and Man Rots From the Head (2016), she deconstructed the iconic face of Hollywood’s mythologized white nerd.

In Gregory Go Boom, Cera plays a racist and sexist man named Gregory who lives with his sister. He blames anyone who doesn’t look like him for his emasculating living situation, “I’m a man. I should be around men. Not [my sister] and her Zulu boyfriend.” he tells his friend Tom (Brett Gelman), as if his sister’s boyfriend is not a fellow man, while they fire handguns at nothing in particular. “You shouldn’t say things like that,” Tom tells him, which Gregory ignores and concludes—“I feel oppressed!” 

Bravo follows her self-pitying protagonist on a series of dates in which he berates white women, “You look whiter in pictures. You’re dark. Keep your voice down!  You smell like a goat!” etc... Needless to say, most of the women leave angry and in a hurry. But Summer (Anna Rose Hopkins) disarms him by taking charge of their conversation, rendering Gregory suddenly docile. She inquires about his parents. “My parents are dead,” he tells her. Apparently the magic words, Summer moves things forward: “You wanna get out of here?” 

Gregory Go Boom

What follows is some torturously one-sided foreplay, Summer vying to make Gregory comfortable, Gregory continuously making Summer uncomfortable, spewing macho lines he’s heard or read before like, “You wanna sit on my face babe?”  before putting the final nail in the coffin with his own line, “You smell like my sister Rose.” These proceedings are further complicated by the fact that Gregory’s legs are paralyzed and just before Summer attempts to initiate sex, he announces that he must first empty his catheter bag. Later, Summer has to lift him out of his wheelchair and onto the bed. This further emasculates him and may explain, but not justify, some of his misogynistic and racist behavior. This is part of the genius of Bravo’s films, that she can grasp and even, to a degree, empathize with the reasons behind the toxic “whiteness” of her individual subjects—but neither relents in her scathing indictment of whiteness, nor presents her diagnosis as an excuse for the resultant destructive behaviors.

Running door to door in an apartment complex like a mouse in a maze, Cera plays a god-fearing knife salesman named Sydney in Bravo’s black and white short Man Rots From the Head. He has the opposite problem of Gregory: potential customers keep coming on to him, but he stops the womens’ attempt in their tracks, cursing his premarital temptations in prayer between sales pitches, “Protect me from black laws and false laws and from spells and witches.” But like Gregory, he maneuvers the world under Bravo’s microscope. Here, her scrutinizing gaze takes the form of God and the Black tenants, both whom Sydney feels he’s under constant surveillance by. An older Black renter named Mr. Z shows up in various rooms and hallways of the complex, first in the background out of focus, watching Sydney closely as he tries to sell knives to a flirtatious woman who is presumably Mr. Z’s partner, then elsewhere carrying a mirror that shows Sydney his reflection and finally watching the sorry salesman leave the complex from the top of the stairs. Bravo blurs the line between her subject’s white and Christian guilt, suggesting faith as an intricate diversion from the former. In the end credits sequence, Mr. Z monologues, “Black men of dignity must realize the so-called emancipation can never be given by the objectionable being. For who gives, must have to give… [We] must live beyond the ignorance and never institute the maggot-like manner of the Westerner, for the jailer is in prison as he watches the prisoner, but knows it not.”

Man Rots from the Head

“When I go out of the house, I don’t get to exist without processing whiteness, and it’s exhausting.” Bravo said on the podcast Talk Easy. “I’m still exorcising my questions around it.” Bravo perceives whiteness from new and exposing angles. When Gregory and Tom go shooting in Gregory Go Boom, for instance, she films their guns at an awkward dutch angle, eschewing their target from the frame and never cutting away to it. She also makes the gunshots sound hilariously soft and squishy, draining all of the usual amped up audiovisual bravado.

And across all her films, including her other shorts Pauline Alone (2014) and Woman In Deep (2016), both which parody comfortable white womens’ plight and potential for virulence, a prominent instrument tracks her subjects’ inner thoughts and feelings—a saxophone for Sydney in Man Rots from the Head, a flute for Birdie (Allison Pill) in Woman In Deep. The music that scores the neurosis of the titular white protagonist in Pauline Alone is more varied than the others. Pauline (Gaby Hoffman) laments her loneliness for most of the film by diving headfirst into the business of strangers—calling them about their missing pets and doodads and often inciting unnecessary drama. Near the end, however, she reveals to Horn (Jason Lew), a man she’s pining for, that she is in fact dating a Black man who is never shown in the film, referred to by name, or mentioned again. Bravo underplays Pauline’s reveal and uncomfortably plays it for laughs, as she often depicts such cavalier cruelties of whiteness. But this emasculation and erasure of her partner feels so violent that it disturbs everything that follows and came before, especially the romantic music number just prior in which she dances with Horn and perhaps fantasizes a future with him. This erasure also recalls how Gregory overlooked the masculinity of his sister’s boyfriend, who is also never shown and only mentioned once in Gregory Goes Boom.

Pauline Alone / Woman in Deep

A flute embodies Birdie’s fragile state of mind in the first third of Woman in Deep. After losing her cellphone, she immediately suspects her housekeepers stole it (not once considering that she might have lost it herself), shyly interrogating them with patronizing questions. Again, Bravo centers Birdie under the gaze of the characters of color on the outskirts. But when the housekeepers laugh at Birdie’s debilitating fear and paranoia about them, it’s significant that the audience laughs with the characters on the peripheries of the frame rather than empathizing with the character the camera follows. Then Birdie becomes even more irrational, cueing a shift from the flute to stark piano keys, and is finally placated by a Spanish song performed by her housekeeper Nora, the woman she first interrogated about her phone. It is no coincidence that in Birdie’s self-reflexive and confused depression, that her supposed source of anxiety is also what brings her calm. She fears the housekeepers, patronizes them, and insults them behind closed doors, but feels affirmed when they still come bearing her a birthday cake and a song—an obligation courtesy of the job. Through the use of score and soundtrack, Bravo’s characters are, in-effect, made see-through, without ambiguous intentions to hide behind. 

She uses this technique to different effect in Zola, her sophomore feature. Mica Levi’s score for the film, Bravo told me, “...Becomes an extension of Zola’s gut. Sometimes, if she isn’t one step ahead, our music is telegraphing or signaling how dangerous things are whether or not characters know.” Zola (Taylour Paige) finds herself in grating and unreliable company when she agrees to an impulsive road trip to Florida with her new white friend Stefani (Riley Keough), a fellow pole dancer. Throughout the trip, she listens to Stefani and her boyfriend Derrek (Nicholas Braun) as they appropriate and bastardize AAVE (African American Vernacular English). In the face of their alienating whiteness, Levi’s score keeps the viewer emotionally connected to Zola, who has little dialogue as she observes the ludicrous events of the trip unfold.

Zola is based on the viral twitter thread written by the real A’Zhia “Zola” King, who recounted the epic story of her fallout with her ex-best friend Stefani. She invites Zola to dance at a lucrative, upscale club in Florida for the weekend, with the intention of baiting her into sex work. But because of Levi’s score, we sense these twists and turns before they happen, like Zola does instinctually. “I think that the world rears us to not listen to our gut. So I wanted the score to show that our gut is often right and that if we engage or listen to it and trust in ourselves a little bit more, we might avoid situations that feel a little uncomfortable, nefarious, or dangerous.” Bravo said.

In the sex work scenes with Stefani at an upscale hotel, as in the shooting scene in Gregory Go Boom, Bravo reverses the traditional direction of the cameras. In this case, she turns the lens onto the assortment of customers’ penises, exposing the men who usually hide behind the camera in pornography and sex scenes in films. Zola ends up stuck inside the hotel room while Stefani works, staring into a wall with her back turned on the bed.

Although Zola is Bravo’s first film to feature a Black woman in the lead role, her scrutinizing gaze on whiteness remains. She shares that gaze with Zola, who she lovingly observes—pouring onto her diffused light and gifting her impressionistic vignettes, one in which she admires herself in opulent outfits in a room full of mirrors—as Zola herself observes whiteness unraveling. Despite being trapped and lonely in the discomfiting red state of Florida, where she sees a gigantic third national flag posted on the side of the highway (a version of the confederate flag which, because it was designed the year the civil war ended, saw little wartime use but, evidently, found prolonged purpose), police brutality, and experiences casual racism everywhere, Zola is able to carve out a safe space for herself by dancing or meditating with nothing but her own headspace.

In one such dancing scene, Bravo mutes the ambiance of the club while Zola glides gracefully along the pole. Only the soundtrack can be heard, which has been relaxed to suit Zola’s tranquil state. But when a customer says something casually racist to her, it breaks her peace and causes the muted coughs and cackles of the white male customers to suddenly emerge, burying the soundtrack that once connected us to her. Bravo explains, “I wanted the dancing to be meditative for her, that her experience and time on the pole was the place where she felt most herself. And this is something the real Zola said: she’s extremely comfortable with her own sexuality and always has been since she was young. She felt that her sexuality was one of the only parts of her identity that she could control, so that was my relationship to how she used her body to dance and what it did for her—that she felt so filled and fed by her relationship to movement.”

When the tension escalates near the end of the film, Zola is physically trapped and cannot use movement to relieve herself. Bravo then visualizes her headspace—a safety zone—as an animation of rainbow colored lights, severing her from the reality of the scene. In Zola, Bravo moves her observer character to the center of the camera’s attention and her white characters, and their driving action, to the peripheries for the first time. But whether or not she centers whiteness in front of her lens or not—and whether or not her film stars all white leads—it somehow always feels subsidiary, or under an “anthropological” lens. When Sam Fragoso, the host of the Talk Easy podcast, asked Bravo: “There’s an expectation for you to make a kind of film, to tell a kind of story, does that feel fair?” She decodes his question for him: “Yeah, I think you’re saying because I’m Black I should be making Black movies? [laughs] Is that what you’re saying?”

“I didn’t say that. I think other people say that.”

“I don’t think the movies [which don’t star Black characters] are not Black. Of course they are. I am. I like who I am and I am comfortable with who I am—finally. I like how I see things, I like how I talk, I like how I put words together. All of the films, whether or not the protagonists look like me, feel like me.”

Man Rots From the Head / Zola 

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