Zola movie: How filmmaker Janicza Bravo adapted A’Ziah King’s viral Twitter thread

Zola is a pioneer on many fronts, with its dreamy sex work story adapted from a viral Twitter thread.

The intoxicating, surreal and wild Zola is a pioneer.

It’s the first feature to be adapted from a viral Twitter thread, but more than that, it’s an exploration of narrative voice, one which tells a story that doesn’t judge sex work and the women who choose it.

In 2015, A’Ziah King, then 19, went viral for a 148-word tweet thread detailing her eye-popping true story about a roadtrip gone wrong.

In her distinct, playful and comical voice, King’s tweets charted the journey from the moment she met Stefanie, a white dancer she instantly befriended.

When Stefanie asked her to come on a trip from Detroit to Tampa in Florida, with promises of good money stripping at the clubs down there, King was in. But the trip wasn’t what King had bargained for, ultimately spiralling into a misadventure involving pimps, criminals and a gang bang.

Filmmaker Janicza Bravo was one of the legions of people who read King’s thread in that first day – and she was immediately captivated.

“I fell in love with it immediately,” Bravo told “A few tweets in, I started having a photographic relationship to it – that is to say, I know whether or not a project is for me if I start seeing it in pictures.”

After she started mentally storyboarding the King’s tweets, Bravo unsuccessfully pursued the rights for a screen adaptation, until it came back up again in 2017. She wasn’t fazed by the prospect of transforming a relatively new storytelling medium into one that had been around for more than a century.

“I’m a child of the theatre, and to me, it was no different than adapting a piece of theatre,” she explained. Stories are turned into whole series and poems are turned into films. So, this felt no different than that.”

King’s viral thread was actually her third attempt at sharing her story. She first wrote it a few weeks after she returned from the now infamous trip, originally on Tumblr and, according to Bravo, “that draft is morose, treacherous and hard, and she’s writing with tears”.

The second version had more levity and landed on Twitter – but it didn’t gain any traction. The third version came a few months later when King was a bit more removed from the experienced, and that was the one that took off.

“She’s recast the narrative, rewritten some of the story, rewritten her part, the part she played,” Bravo said. “Some of that rewriting is something I feel we are all guilty of. We all do this, it’s part of how we survive.

“When we look back on experiences, particularly unsavoury ones, even ones that are food, I think we’ll just rewrite ourselves a little bit. The outfit changes, the hair changes. That’s part of how people survive.

“And now as the director, I have the opportunity to recast it. That’s why it has this patina. There’s a candy-coloured patina through the whole movie, it’s got some cellophane on it, and their outfits are amazing.

“I wanted to be able to present the best version of what she told, I wanted the film to be something she could hold really close.”

Zola, which stars Taylour Paige as King and Riley Keough as Stefanie, as well as Colman Domingo as Stefanie’s pimp X and Nicholas Braun as Stefanie’s bumbling boyfriend Derrek, does have a dream-like quality to it.

It’s a seductive story that lures the viewer into a different, unfamiliar space in which the cadence of the language and the rhythm of the movements feels otherworldly. It has an irresistible trance-like lyricism.

Not long after King’s story went viral, there was a Rolling Stone feature written by David Kushner, which through a complex rights deal came attached to King’s life rights.

But Bravo didn’t want Kushner’s article to be the basis for her film.

“I wasn’t really interested in the world that the article presented. To me, I feel like there’s a little bit of, and I don’t know if he’s conscious of it or not, but I think he’s judging a bit, asking ‘how did you end up in this situation’ rather than looking at the horror of the situation.

“I’m not a white guy I my 40s, so that’s not my vibe.”

Bravo worked with King on elements of the story – the gang bang in the film isn’t in the original thread – and was conscious of King when they were casting.

That commitment to King’s voice, filtered through Bravo’s vision and voice, bears a vivid film. But it’s as entertaining and jawdropping it is, there’s a dark side.

“Even if you go back now and you find the thread and you read it while sitting on the toilet for 10 minutes, you might think, ‘This is fun’. But actually, it’s not that fun. I think she wrote with great joy but behind a lot of that piece is something quite bleak.

“It’s trauma, there’s real trauma. Once you actualise the film, I think the thing that concerned me, or one of the things that was definitely a challenge, is how do you still get the fun that she is weaving but also remind the audience that there is a traumatised person at the centre?”

Zola, ultimately, is a story about agency in choosing sex work, anathema to popular, tragic narratives about women who do it because they need to pay for school or to take care of their children.

Bravo said she hoped that audiences would connect with Zola on a deeper, more nuanced level.

“I want the film to stay with people. I hope they walk away from it wanting to have some kind of discourse around race, wanting to have some discourse around sex work and sex trafficking, hoping that they’re able to respect those women and that space a little more.

“And know that there’s a bit more nuance. I didn’t know this sex work story either. I didn’t know the story of two girls who had found themselves in this work because they liked it, because they wanted it.

“The reason I am not judging the characters is that I don’t that Zola is judging. She’s not judging the work, she’s judging the situation that she has been thrown into, because she wasn’t asked, or the parameters weren’t clear.

“What she is judging is that she was duped.”

Zola is in cinemas now

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