Riley Keough and Taylour Paige are fearless performers in Zola, a garish fairytale nightmare of strippers in Florida, based on a true(ish) story. But despite spending the movie in various states of undress and vulnerability, what Keough was really worried about was the accent. Her character, Stefani, speaks in what you might call a “blaccent” – a brash, brazen imitation of African-American speech. As Paige put it, “she’s in blackface the whole movie”. The director, Janicza Bravo, encouraged it but, understandably, Keough had misgivings about going so offensively all-out.
Literal blackface is (now) a very obvious form of racist appropriation, but when it comes to linguistics, it is more difficult to know where to draw the line. The two used to go hand-in-hand, but African-American Vernacular English, to give it its formal term, is constantly feeding into mainstream (AKA historically white) language. It is often the place where the cool words come from – including “cool” itself (flashback to In the Cut where Meg Ryan meets with a Black student to get the latest slang words hot off the street). Appropriation is often called out in music (eg Iggy Azalea) but in film it’s less clear cut.
We have had characters such as James Franco’s cornrowed rapper Alien from Spring Breakers – more a knowing parody rather than straight appropriation – and movies such as James Toback’s Black and White, which tackled the issue head-on. But where along the line do we put Awkwafina, who has had to defend her “blaccent” in movies such as Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians? And where do we put Quentin Tarantino, who liberally peppers his dialogue with the N-word? At least he’s not completely without self-awareness; he did give us Gary Oldman in True Romance, who tells Christian Slater: “You musta thought it was white boy day.”
When it’s the other way round – Black people adopting “white” speech – it’s often less about “appropriation” than reassuring white folks. We could refer to teen drama The Hate U Give, whose Black heroine must code-switch to a “less ghetto” persona at her white high school. Or Sorry to Bother You, where Lakeith Stanfield’s telemarketer finds success by putting on a “white voice” (dubbed by a different actor).
A’Ziah King, the author of the viral Twitter thread that inspired Zola, has given Keough’s performance the seal of approval, claiming she sounds just like the real-life “Stefani”. Director Bravo, on the other hand, talks nothing like her characters in Zola. She has spoken of how white interviewers are surprised at how “well spoken” or “articulate” she is. In other words: “You don’t sound like a stereotypical Black person.” Maybe she needs to get some lessons from Keough?