As as far as adaptations go, Zola is remarkably true to its source material, the 148-tweet thread known as #TheStory. When director Janicza Bravo and her co-writer Jeremy O. Harris came on board to translate the lyrics for A’Ziah “Zola” King on screen, they set out to preserve her voice, her agency, in the too wild to be true odyssey that she initially shared with the world. (King also served as an executive producer on the film.) Clearly in love with King as a person and storyteller, Bravo and Harris treat #TheStory as writing, and Zola is the elegant vessel for its sacred words. In doing so, Zola‘s “Zola” (Taylor paige) functions as both writer and audience surrogate – the film hardly ever leaves her as we watch her process the events that are spiraling out of control around her, forming the narrative in real time. In this direction, Zola is, in part, a story about storytelling, about how we are all the main characters in our day-to-day lives, and about the embellishments we make, young and old, to create the stories about ourselves that we think people want to listen.
But Zola stays true to King’s tweets, frequently engaging them to film verbatim, there is one notable exception. Just before the final act, a title card reading “@Stefani” appears on the screen. What follows is a cinematic tangent that is both hilarious and horrifying like Stefani (Riley keough) —Zola’s guide to that dark descent — tells #TheStory from her perspective, with some notable discrepancies in what we’ve seen so far. As comically ironic and hopelessly racist as Stefani’s brief narrative is, it was also taken straight from the source: Stefani’s actual counterpart Reddit post purporting to tell King’s story as she remembered it. Literally interrupting Zola, the scene serves as a distinct reminder of the story we’ve been following so far, and how a movie like Zola is, where black women control their own narratives.
In conversation with The AV Club, Bravo, Harris and King unbox the memorable moment when Zola becomes “@Stefani,” revealing why they felt compelled to include him in the film and how they balanced his humor with the uglier realities he brings to light.
The AV Club: So many ZolaThe story adheres very closely to #TheStory, as tweeted by A’Ziah. But, just before the final act, we suddenly switch to “@Stefani”, to see Stefani’s version of events. What is the genesis of this scene, and what did you hope to convey with it?
Well done Janicza: When I first read #TheStory on Twitter in 2015, I followed it shortly after reading it. I had done my dramaturgical digs, and I came across the “Stefani” of our story – the real person -[telling] their version on Reddit. And “Derrek” -Nicholas Braun – this real person shared his version on Facebook, and there were a lot of similarities. There was a lot of overlap between the three stories. I really wanted there to be Stefani’s version mainly because, in addition to finding these pieces, almost every article that existed at the time had questioned the validity of A’Ziah’s story. They seemed so invested in whether what she was saying was true or not, and more focused on this than the topic she was talking about, which bothered me a bit.
I assumed that part of our audience would show up right from the jump, from the first frame, already wondering what this dynamic was between a black woman and a white woman. And so I gave them the thing that I already thought they were asking, which was, “Well, what’s his version of events? And I think that serves as a reminder to you that the story we’ve watched, up to this point, is also told from a person’s perspective.
AVC: So, A’Ziah, what do you think of this scene? Why do you think this is important for the film?
King A’Ziah “Zola”: It’s one of my favorite scenes, for sure. I mean, that’s how she did to me in real life! This is exactly what his version looked like, just like that, you know? So it was on the mark. [Laughs.]
AVC: A lot of the character’s deeper racism, Stefani, is bubbling to the surface right now, but you’re juggling the ugliness of that with comedy. Jeremy, how did you and Janicza navigate the script for the scene?
Jeremy O. Harris: I think the real woman was – I mean, I think it’s obvious when you read her [Reddit post] why there is this crumb of friendship that was available to her in A’Ziah at one point. Because, you know, the phrase, “she only made $ 1,” wasn’t invented by us – that was actually her phrase, and it was hilarious, right? [Laughs.] Also, the idea that someone only to earn $ 1 at a strip club?
I think in the script [the scene] has become a space for much joy for us. Because we loved A’Ziah so much – and her ability to tell such a beautiful, complex, and hilarious story – it was really fun to put ourselves down and think, “What’s the worst way to tell the exact same story?” And see what kind of comedy can come out of it. Like, those times when she said, “Well, I’m a Christian” –
AZK: It’s just therefore funny.
JOH: It’s all of those weird asides – that don’t have to be there to make you the main character of your own story – that’s what she does. And it was really exciting to script. It also gave me and Janicza the opportunity to reflect on our theatrical backgrounds – we’re both theater nerds. And I think, you know, just the chance to do a full fourth wall monologue was a dream. It brought us back to Playwrights Horizons and DePaul Theater School – shout!
For more than The AV Clubthe cover of Zola, you can consult our film review, Lily our interview with the cast, and watch our conversations with stars Taylour Paige and Riley Keough below:
Zola is now showing in select theaters nationwide.