How much longer can the industry ignore the reverence of actor Colman Domingo before they decide to take notice? This holiday weekend gives audiences the 2020 Sundance Film Festival hit “Zola” from A24 and co-writer and director Janicza Bravo. As “X,” the mysterious and terrifying “roommate” of Stefani (Riley Keough), who takes her, the free-spirited Zola (Taylour Paige) and the emotionally unstable Derrek (Nicholas Braun) on a road trip to Florida to dance at a strip club, Domingo slithers through the role with focus and menacing ease.
As history has shown, the fun and frightening villains are always a good ticket to Oscar recognition. Whether it’s the psychological torment exhibited by Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) or the sadistic killing spree shown by Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in “No Country for Old Men” (2007), a person that people love to hate can have positive effects on the awards circuit. Sliding through all facets of art, including television (“Fear the Walking Dead”) and theatre (nominated for a Tony award in 2010 for “The Scottsboro Boys”), the AMPAS and DGA member could be quickly approaching his overdue recognition moment in Hollywood, one that could land him in the supporting actor conversation.
In film, he’s worked with some of the best in the business — Ava DuVernay (“Selma”), Barry Jenkins (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) and last year with George C. Wolfe (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”). Working with fellow Afro-Latina Janicza Bravo on dark comedy “Zola,” based on the 148-tweet thread by Aziah “Zola” King from 2015, is another example of how the talented artist inhabits any role provided and elevates every beat surrounding him. The good news for Domingo is that there aren’t any standout supporting actor contenders up to this point in the year. Based on the look of the rest of the summer, there may be only one or two dark horses to add to the shortlist thus far.
Domingo’s main obstacle will be if “Zola” can maintain its buzz for the next several months. First, where can this film feasibly find recognition from the Academy? Sole supporting actor nominees for movies are not unheard of. Still, in the last decade, when they occur, the actor recognized already had a previous nomination or Oscar win in their careers – Tom Hanks in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (2019), Christopher Plummer in “All the Money in the World” (2017), Willem Dafoe in “The Florida Project” (2017), Michael Shannon in “Nocturnal Animals” (2016), Sylvester Stallone in “Creed” (2015), Robert Duvall in “The Judge” (2014), Christopher Plummer in “Beginners” (2011) and Jeremy Renner in “The Town” (2010). In other words, “Zola” will likely need to pull in an additional nom for Domingo’s chances to increase.
We saw Taylour Paige’s ability to command the screen in last year’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” opposite Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis. Her naturalistic approach to Azia’h, the part-time waitress and stripper, gets plenty of chuckles and affords her moments of dramatic exploration. However, with a few newcomers from the first half of 2021 already angling for a possible “breakthrough” spot in the best actress category (i.e., Rachel Sennott in “Shiva Baby” and Melissa Barrera in “In the Heights”), with a couple more to come down the pike, she’ll need a concentrated and robust campaign from A24 to stand a chance.
There could be an avenue for the film to find love from the writer’s branch. A corner of the Academy that has been a bit more open to unconventional stories as seen with past nominees such as “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” (2020) and “Logan” (2017), this could be a category to find traction for Bravo, along with co-writer Jeremy O. Harris. As the Oscars go back to a guaranteed 10 nominees for best picture, one should be reminded that the two years they had the voting method in 2009 and 2010, only one non-picture nominee was able to muster a mention — the British satire “In the Loop,” which made it over the surprise best picture nominee “The Blind Side.” One of the film’s shortcomings is its inconsistent narrative tones and inklings of a mean-spirited depiction of sex workers. It doesn’t quite sustain its energetic first 40 minutes before reaching palpable humps and seemingly out-of-nowhere serious beats.
It’s worth noting there are a couple of former Oscar-nominated artisans embedded within “Zola,” including composer Mica Levi (“Jackie”) and editor Joi McMillon (“Moonlight”), but those spots may prove too competitive.
So, where does the conversation for “Zola” truly stand at the moment? Currently sitting at 87% on Rotten Tomatoes and 75 on Metacritic, the film is in a decent spot so that a discussion is warranted. This weekend’s box office returns are also promising as it pulled in $2.4 million from 1,468 theaters based on initial reports. In this post-COVID world, and as the Cannes Film Festival begins to have liftoff with Leos Carax’s “Annette,” the term “unconventional” could be a running theme for movies this summer.