ZORA
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ZORA

‘Zola’ Is What Happens When Going Viral Goes Right for Black Women

Zola’s viral Twitter story is finally getting the respect and recognition it deserves on screen

Riley Keough (left) and Taylour Paige (right) star in “Zola” (Photo Credit: A24)

In the fall of 2015, A’Ziah King (known online as “Zola”) posted pictures on Twitter of herself and a White girl and asked her followers if they wanted to hear the story why she “and this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but it’s full of suspense.”

She wasn’t lying.

In a thread over 140 tweets (before Twitter threads were even a thing), Zola detailed the story of how, at 19 years old, she’d met a woman named Jessica who invited her on a cross-country road trip to dance at a club in Florida. What followed was a whirlwind of lies, murder and suicides attempts, hustling pimps, lots of cash, turning tricks, and some hilarious one-liners.

#TheStory, as it became known on Twitter, quickly went viral (one of the first tweets to do so), and readers the world over were clamoring for a film adaptation of the too-zany-to-be-true story. Six years and several false starts later, the long-awaited “Zola,” starring Taylour Paige in the titular role, hits theaters worldwide on June 30.

The film is a beautiful, hilarious, and serious retelling of how Zola survived and somehow thrived during a “hoe trip” gone wrong. It’s sexy without being raunchy (though there is a montage of penises), it’s mesmerizing while still being believable, and the actors and script combined give a humorous but real commentary on race, sex work, truth, and lies.

But more captivating than the film itself is the woman behind the story. When Black women go viral on the internet, they seldom get the credit or the recognition for their creativity. That wasn’t the case this time; Zola made sure of that. When #TheStory started making waves, she made it a point to find the right director who would stay true to the essence of the story and not let the Hollywood machine take over.

ZORA spoke with the film’s director, Janzica Bravo, and with the real-life Zola, A’Zhia King, and about how they took #TheStory from Twitter to the big screen, how life has changed since the viral moment, and about how they protected the real Zola and her creativity from industry exploitation.

“I hope people feel inspired to tell their stories [and] be authentic with it. I hope people realize that you can tell your story and keep agency over your voice and really own it.” — A’Ziah “Zola” King

ZORA: What made you decide to share the tweet heard ‘round the world?

Zola: That particular night, I had come across some pictures of that trip, and I guess it kind of triggered me, and I was like, “I think I’m going to tell the story again” because I had kind of mentioned it at home [when I returned] from the trip, but I didn’t go into depth. Six or seven months had went by, and I saw the pictures, and I thought, “You know what, I think I’m going to tell Twitter what really went down.”

And the world is grateful that you did! Everyone was captivated by the story and your storytelling. Did you expect it to go from Twitter to an actual movie?

Z: I did not! I’d heard that about several things that I’d experienced, especially working in sex work or working at the club. People are like, “Your life is like a movie!” [I was just] sharing one of those weird things that have happened to me. I was shocked; I was kind of taken aback. I’d always written, that was always my go-to process and really express myself. So I appreciated the acknowledgment that I’m actually a good writer, but I was never there with the intent or the thought that this would be an actual film.

After the Twitter story went viral and there was buzz about turning the story into a movie, I personally was really concerned about the story possibly being Whitewashed. Janzica, why was it a story only you could retell in theaters?

‘Zola’ director, Janzica Bravo (Photo credit: Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb)

Janzica: I think I had the same fear you had in a way. I read it on Twitter the day that it came out. When I read it, I knew that I had to go after it. I think I felt I had to [direct] because I knew I was going to protect it. And I am so indebted to [Zola]. In a way, she has changed my life.

[When I became the director], I knew the first person I had to talk to is [Zola]. I needed the blessing of the real woman. I met her and her mom, we talked on FaceTime for a few hours, I basically reinterviewed her, and she kind of had to walk me through the story outside of the Twittersphere. My goal was to adapt the story and treat it as I would any great piece of literature.

“All I could feel was how this brilliant writer (Zola) was totally processing and healing and exorcising her trauma.” — Janzica Bravo

This is pretty special and pretty rare. When people go viral, they don’t typically get the credit or long-lasting fame or see the fruits of their labor, especially Black women. What steps did you take to protect yourself and your story, Zola?

Z: I really took my time deciding who to work with. I was patient, and I think that’s where a lot of people go wrong. They think a viral moment has to be acted upon right then and there, and maybe some of them do, but I just knew with the engagement centered around this particular viral moment, I didn’t need to do anything right now. And doing something right then would’ve caused me to make a bad decision, and things could have went in an entirely different way. So I think my patience really helped because I took my time in deciding everything.

I think a common misconception is that when a person becomes famous on the internet, they become a celebrity in real life. Did your life change after telling #TheStory?

Z: Absolutely not. I use the internet to really express and be in community anyways. Before it was Twitter, it was Tumblr. Before Tumblr, it was Myspace. So I always had this kind of following. That’s where I’ve always been myself. It didn’t quite change me; it was just a little more attention. Nothing really changed, not for real.

Within the last two to three years, once the movie became a conversation, that’s when [people recognizing me on the street] started to happen. Am I [famous] though? I’m still in limbo with that term. But I don’t mind the extra attention.

The Zola film is really beautiful and sometimes funny despite the heavy storyline. How did you balance humor with the seriousness of what had happened to real people?

J: I think that one of the gifts of the film is using humor to allow the audience to be more comfortable with having a conversation about sex work and sex slavery. It brings you closer; it invites you in. The whole time [at the screening] for me, I was laughing and cringing and sometimes in pain, and all I could feel was how this brilliant writer (Zola) was totally processing and healing and exorcising her trauma. A 19-year-old woman got out of this. And what she was inside of was totally harrowing, and she got duped.

The real Zola, A’Ziah King (Photo credit: Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb)

Do you have any regrets about how everything turned out, Zola? Is there anything you’d do differently knowing what you know now about the industry and the internet?

Z: No (I wouldn’t do it differently). I probably wouldn’t have been so personal in terms of who she actually was and pictures and stuff, but they made for such a good moment, so I can’t really call it a regret. Later in life, [Jessica] ended up suing me and all types of stuff. But it kind of worked out in my favor.

Do you have any regrets from the trip itself? Were you ever scared that you wouldn’t make it out of Florida alive?

Z: Honestly, no. People keep asking me that! I guess I kind of felt like I was the smartest person in the room. I felt like I was 10 steps ahead of everyone at the time. There was never a moment when I felt I was in danger.

You don’t even have to be a sex worker for this to happen to you. [Real life] isn’t the movies. Some weird White guy with bifocals isn’t going to pull up in a van with no windows and throw you in the back — that’s just not how it’s going to happen. You’re going to be out and in the club and hanging out, and you’re going to be with your friends, and you’re going to go on a vacation with a girl you just met at work, and you’re just not going to come home.

“I think that when you find something you’re good at, you should kind of just rock with it.” — A’Ziah “Zola” King

What do you hope people will feel or learn after they see the Zola film?

J: I hope we set the bar for how a creator — Black, Brown, female, people who are considered voiceless — that our work sets the bar on how those creators ought to be treated. What was most important to me in protecting A’Ziah was making sure that she was credited [as an executive producer] with having been the godmother of this whole thing. So I hope how she’s been treated in this whole process becomes a precedent for the next person. That they’re able to look to our film and her experience and say, “That’s what I want. This is the credit that I need; this is how I want to be wined and dined. I am special.”

Z: I hope this sparks up more conversation [about sex work]. I also hope people feel inspired to tell their stories [and] be authentic with it. I hope that people realize that you can tell your story and keep agency over your voice and really own it. That’s all I can ask for.

What’s next for the real Zola?

Z: I’m kind of just taking it a day at a time. I just had a baby; she’s four months old. I’m still making music, writing whenever I can. I’m ready and willing and open to do anything.

I’m in love with my music, that’s first and foremost. I would love to write — whether it’s book form or scripts, I just really enjoy processing and expressing in that way, and I have plenty of content to do so. I’m willing to do that now that I know I’m good at it. I think that when you find something you’re good at, you should kind of just rock with it. I’m aiming to continue writing.

The book is coming! #TheStory in book form. I think that will really legitimize it. It will be one of those things that will sit there on your coffee table. And anything [in the] future, I would totally come to Twitter with it first.

Zola is in theaters starting June 30, 2021. Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.

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Jolie A. Doggett

Jolie A. Doggett

book lover | fangirl | Black woman | Terp

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