The Book of Zola

Writer Jeremy O. Harris and writer-director Janicza Bravo tell Selome Hailu about how they conceptualized sex work, Black womanhood and truth-telling in Zola, their film adaptation of one of the most iconic internet moments of all time.

“I used the thread as my Bible,” Janicza Bravo tells me. “I told the story, as it was written.” In a separate interview, on another day, Jeremy O. Harris concurs. “It was always 100 percent a fact to me, in the way that for some people, the Bible is a fact for them, [even when] geography or anthropology tell us differently. That is how I treat the mythic figure of Zola.”

Harris, co-writer, and Bravo, co-writer and director, are of course referring to the viral 2015 Twitter thread written by A’Ziah “Zola” King about a Tampa Bay road-trip gone irreparably wrong. Zola, then a 20-year-old Black woman, posted a few selfies with a white woman. She captioned them with now-famous words: “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” 148 tweets later, Zola had relayed a larger-than-life thriller about getting tricked into joining an entanglement between Stefani, her boyfriend, and her pimp. Enter: Strange men from the dark web. Hotels and motels. Thick stacks of cash. Guns.

Taylour Paige stars as Zola in director Janicza Bravo’s Zola.
Taylour Paige stars as Zola in director Janicza Bravo’s Zola.

But in Zola, the new film adapted from that story, Bravo and Harris complicate what “larger-than-life” means. The Twitter thread is certainly outrageous. It’s terrifying, and it’s laugh-out-loud funny. While taking all of that in, though, the pair saw no reason to interpret it as fictitious. “Her writing was so immediate that it was undeniable,” Harris says.

Beyond their faith in Zola and the specificity of her narrative, they also knew that the story had been corroborated. The real Stefani made a Reddit post about those nights. Her real boyfriend, Derek, turned to Facebook. “And when you look at those three stories together,” Bravo continues, “those three tellings, they’re all pretty symbiotic. Except for how each of those characters had cast themselves. Derek cast himself differently. Stefani cast herself differently. Zola cast herself differently. But the events were so similar.”

So, is there a chance Zola heightened a couple of details here and there for effect? Sure. Maybe Stefani wasn’t so ignorant in person. Maybe Derek wasn’t so weepy. As Bravo puts it, “we paint a different version of [ourselves] as a natural part of storytelling, especially if there is trauma at hand.” (See: I, Tonya, for another version of multiple first-person storytelling around traumatic events.)

Janicza Bravo on set with Taylour Paige and Riley Keough.
Janicza Bravo on set with Taylour Paige and Riley Keough.

At the end of the day, those discrepancies are hardly significant. We know that Zola and Stefani met at a Hooters in Detroit. We know that Stefani, Derek and a mysterious man called X picked Zola up and drove to Florida so she and Stefani could make money dancing at strip clubs. We know there was some fighting and deception. We know X turned out to be a pimp. We know Zola and Stefani ended up involved in full-service sex work, and that that wasn’t what Zola had planned.

Taking Zola at her word, the next step was research. “I didn’t have very much access to finances then,” Harris laughs. “So I asked the production company, ‘Hey, now that I’m working on the screenplay, can you fly me down to Florida, put me up for two months during summer break, and allow me to immerse myself in the world of Tampa stripping?’ And they were like, ‘Absolutely not.’ And I was like, ‘Cool, cool, cool, cool, cool. This is independent filmmaking!’”

But he found that immersion elsewhere. Just as Twitter was the tool that gave millions room to engage with Zola and her counterparts, it enabled Harris to aggregate a wide palette of people’s truths to draw from. He found women online who had stripped in Florida and interviewed them, and also spoke with some of his own friends who were sex workers in New York and Los Angeles. “They told me their own stories of their own ‘hoe trips’,” he says, borrowing a term from Zola’s thread. “Moments when trust had been manipulated. Times when friendships had been fraught, because of the ways in which our government has allowed sex work to be a space that is unsafe for the people that engage with it, because it’s so unregulated.”

Bravo, Keough and Paige on the set of Zola.
Bravo, Keough and Paige on the set of Zola.

Bravo was especially focused on getting the visuals of sex work right: “I asked both my director of photography [Ari Wegner] and my production designer [Katie Byron], “Could you list American films in which you’ve seen sex or sex work represented, in which you’ve seen the woman being naked, and you felt comfortable in the experience? And it didn’t feel voyeuristic at all?”

In a mood echoed across many film conversations in the past few decades, Bravo thinks there’s something “inherently prudish” about American cinema, that undue shame gets attached to the idea of sex. The resulting deficit in public understanding of sexual health and freedom results in a visual culture that doesn’t know what to do when it comes time to look at women’s bodies. “Oftentimes when you’re seeing women naked, it doesn’t feel consensual. As a watcher, I don’t always feel the consent. You find this young woman naked, in a scene where she is totally exposed, and the man… maybe you get his buttocks.”

That imbalance had no place in a film adapted from a first-person telling of a woman’s own highs and lows in sex work. “Also they’re pretty bare in the film anyways, right?” Bravo says, referencing the costumes Paige and Keough wear in scenes at Hooters, at the strip club, in the hotel. So any time Zola (played by Taylour Paige) and Stefani (Riley Keough) have sex with men on screen, they’re endowed with a sense of control. And not just control of the motions; the images themselves are ones of agency. Their nudity is momentary and subtle; Bravo and Harris understood that, in real life, Zola and Stefani had made their bodies available to their partners and customers, but when it comes to us, the audience, all they had licensed was their words.

This isn’t to say that Zola isn’t interested in women’s bodies. Rather, the film creates a marked difference between how Zola and Stefani use their bodies when they’re engaged in public performance versus when they’re in private.

Here’s where more of that Twitter-thread-as-Bible ideology comes in. In the early stages of writing, Bravo and Harris fielded many questions about the viability of the film from people who found the narrative implausible. They didn’t understand why Zola went to Florida in the first place, or why she stayed after things got rough.

Nicholas Braun and Riley Keough in Zola.
Nicholas Braun and Riley Keough in Zola.

Another team had already tried to write a screenplay from Zola’s tweets, and that film never got made. “The issue I had with that screenplay was that they had invented a reason for her going. A reason that was not in the text,” Harris says. The other writers had inserted a storyline about Zola being behind on her bills. “I don’t think she was behind on her bills. This is a suburban girl. She was working at Hooters. She had a good job. She had a man. She was taken care of. I think that the reason that she wanted to go to Florida was the reason she stated in her tweets. She wanted to dance.”

Harris reasoned that Zola so badly wanting to dance must have come from “heightened ability” to do so, but again, he didn’t want to write in anything that didn’t come from the source. So instead of adding dialogue about how good a dancer she thought she was, that idea became visual. When Zola’s on the pole, she’s nothing short of virtuosic, and the contours of her legs and breasts are shot with intention. And this is true to the real Zola’s style: on Twitter, she called herself a “full nude typa bitch”, irritated that the strip club in Florida required her to wear pasties. In her craft, she was no stranger to embracing what Harris calls “the Aristotelian spectacles”.

So Bravo and Harris had their sequence of events. They had a visual language. They had consent—the real Zola is one of the film’s executive producers. The humor came next, in part from the screenplay and especially in some of the later additions: Zola’s unwavering deadpan, Stefani’s painfully bad “blaccent”, the constant barrage of dings and whistles from their cell phones.

Colman Domingo and Taylour Paige on the set of Zola.
Colman Domingo and Taylour Paige on the set of Zola.

No laugh in the film is without punishment, though; each comes with a scare. Zola’s only so tight-lipped to avoid intensifying situations of bodily danger. Stefani’s erratic speech patterns come from her own comfort with exploiting the Black women and aesthetics she profits from. And no moments of the film encapsulate horror-comedy better than when Colman Domingo is on-screen as X, the pimp whose name, accent and story are always changing. Together, these elements create not just a film, but a document of proof. Evidence of the infinite facets of what Zola experienced.

Now deleted, but well-preserved by pop culture, Zola’s Twitter thread was a foundational moment in establishing what the internet can do. Bravo and Harrison recognized that, and recognized how that aligned with what cinema can do. Zola is zany and thrilling. It’s creative and thought-provoking. But above all, Zola is the truth.

Zola’ is in US theaters now, via A24 Films. Photos by Anna Kooris.

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