A’Ziah “Zola” King is best known for her 2015 viral Twitter feed which was an astonishing, sometimes laughing, tale of a road trip that turned dangerous.
The tweetstorm inspired the filmmakers of “Zola”, now in theaters, so much that they treated her social media posts with the same respect as a book, a play, or a short story.
“Text was king, literally. King’s text was king,” said film co-writer Jeremy O. Harris.
Six years ago, King was a 19-year-old waitress in a now-defunct Hooters in Roseville when she embarked on the epic odyssey that would be adapted to the big screen as “Zola.”
The film follows the adventures of Zola (played by Taylour Paige in “White Boy Rick” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), invited by one of her restaurant customers, Stefani (Riley Keough, actress and granddaughter Elvis Presley), to accompany him to Florida and earn some money from exotic dancing.
The journey – which also includes Stefani’s mysterious companion (Colman Domingo), who is actually her volatile pimp and distraught boyfriend (Nicholas Braun from HBO’s “Estate”) – gets out of hand when Stefani begins meeting clients in hotel rooms, which leads to an increasingly worrying situation. situations.
For Zola, who refuses to have sex for money, the goal becomes to return to Motor City and get away from prostitution, guns, petty gangsters, and the growing peril that surrounds him. surrounded.
In real life, King’s Twitter saga of nearly 150 tweets drew huge audiences online and was hailed as a captivating read by famous names like rapper Missy Elliott and director Ava DuVernay.
It looked like a movie waiting to be made. Hollywood agreed. But it would be about five years before “Zola” made its well-received debut at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, followed by another year of delays in its release date due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now 26, King is busy promoting the film which credits her as an executive producer. She says she was born and raised in Detroit and is originally from the east, but is now based in Atlanta.
Since writing the sensation online and gaining media attention, King has had plenty of time to think about what to say to his young daughter before deciding to take that road trip.
Speaking through Zoom with the camera off, King said, “I guess I would just tell myself not to be so confident. I’ve always been like this and I think that’s why I ended up taking this trip in the first place. … I can’t regret it, but I would tell myself to pay a little more attention to who you called your friend.
King admits that she was nervous about how the film adaptation of “Zola” would play out. “At first I was a little worried about how we were going to properly represent my experience,” she says. “I wanted to keep it authentic, because, like I said, it’s something I’ve been through.”
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Guided by the bold vision of director Janicza Bravo and the script by Bravo and Harris, “Zola” is as complex as King’s actual experience must have been. He courageously and honestly captures the violence that sex workers face. Still, it’s hilarious at times, and also reflects the reasons King – who admitted to embellishing pieces of the story – used humor in his tweets.
“A movie about a young black girl who takes hold of her trauma and gives her the opportunity to breathe, and engages with the humanity of black femininity by saying,” My trauma is also funny because I am a human being and I survived it and… laughed about it a lot, that’s what I want people to take away from this, ”said Harris, author of the 2019 Broadway hit show“ Slave Play ” , which received 12 Tony nominations.
“The most human thing in her story (is) that she tells people that, ‘Yes, the life of a black girl is tough and she is full of trauma, like the lives of many girls. But look. how human I am inside of that is something that has been denied of… black female on-screen presentations for so, so long.
When “Zola” premiered last year at Sundance and became a festival hit, the Hollywood Reporter noted that “it makes ‘Hustlers’ look like a Disney movie.” R rating for sexual language and content, which really sets aside that, it does so without exploiting or mitigating how heartbreaking Zola’s situation was.
Said Bravo, who has helmed several recent episodes of HBO’s ‘In Treatment’ reboot, “The story A’Ziah King wrote is a story in which not only the protagonists, but… everyone in this world is welcomed. with great generosity and dignity. And there is no judgment. She doesn’t judge the work they do. She judges the circumstances in which they found themselves, but she does not judge this work. So my job, our job, was to replicate what she did and imbue the world with all the pride she had filled it with.
Actor James Franco was originally supposed to direct “Zola”. When he abandoned the project, Bravo came on board and asked his friend Harris to collaborate on the screenplay. Together, they approached the film with a commitment to take inspiration from Zola’s tweets.
“We’re both kids of the theater, so we treated the source material as we would any great theater piece that we adapt,” Bravo said.
King says Bravo and Harris understood her concerns, such as that she didn’t want the movie to lose her voice or dilute her experiences. “Working with a black screenwriter and working with a black director, I think that’s what was needed for this particular story. I think it all turned out the way it was supposed to,” she says.
The cast also seemed fair to King, especially Paige as Zola. When his tweets first went viral, Twitter users began spreading the story on their own for fun. King remembers seeing a message suggesting that Paige should be playing her.
“For some reason I was immediately drawn to (Paige). I had known her through other things. I rested in that thought and felt like I brought it up spiritually. Didn’t even know it at the same time When Janicza had Taylour in her head and was fighting for her backstage. I had no idea. Same with Taylour. She had gotten the script and she was invested in that moment. .
King adds, “I feel like it was all in heavenly timing, honestly. “
“Zola” has a sleek look and whimsical touches, like her use of the twitter bird chirping sound effect. At one point, it playfully changes the outlook to let Stefani (whose name has been changed from King’s tweets) tell her side of the story.
There are also some thought-provoking choices, like the fact that there is no female nudity, only male nudity. In potentially controversial footage, Stefani’s clients are shown, one after another, through close-ups of their genitals. The choice highlights how men – as opposed to women – are rarely exposed this way in mainstream movies.
King says two things in the movie, in particular, made him laugh. One is Keough’s portrayal of Stefani, who remains unfazed no matter how bizarre things get. The other is the assembly of the penis.
“I don’t know why, it just cracks me up,” she said. “I feel like everyone needs a good penis assembly in their life.”
Bravo says she was first drawn to “Zola” by the strength of the main character.
“I think survival is a big word and also tenacity. That’s it, that kind of fervor, (that) really spoke to me. … I had never met a character like that before. “
In fact, Bravo says the only similar characters she can think of are the fierce women portrayed by legendary actress Pam Grier in movies like “Foxy Brown” and “Jackie Brown.”
To accompany “Zola,” A24, the production company behind the film, released a hardcover book containing King’s original Twitter feed. Entitled “The Story”, it is accompanied by a preface by writer and social commentator Roxane Gay and an afterword by Bravo.
A movie is great, but for King, who is probably the first great storyteller on Twitter, a book is just as special. “I want to have something in the text, a tangible version of it, that kind of solidifies it,” she said.
Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at email@example.com.
Opening Wednesday June 30 in theaters
Rated R (strong sexual language and content, nudity, violence including sexual assault)