'Zola': How a stripper's sex- and violence-filled Twitter thread became a Hollywood feature film

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Aziah “Zola” Wells says she would post “crazy s**t” on Twitter all the time. But the world took notice in October 2015 when the Detroit waitress and occasional exotic dancer rattled off a 148-tweet thread that detailed a sketchy, sex- and violence-filled weekend road trip to Florida Wells took with another stripper she had just met.

“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this b***h here fell out?” the tweetstorm began, accompanied by four selfies featuring Wells and a woman she met at Hooters identified as Jessica. “It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”

The thread exploded across social media, with the likes of Ava DuVernay and Missy Elliott guffawing over its cinematic qualities. A Rolling Stone tell-all with Wells followed, in which she insisted most of her account was true, but admitted fictionalizing or embellishing the violence. Still, by that point, Zola had become a cultural phenomenon. A movie version was practically inevitable.

“I guess in the moment I didn’t even realize I was doing something major,” Wells says now as that inevitable film version opens in theaters this week (watch above). “I was just talking the way that I always talk. … It was a bit of a shock.”

In February 2016, producers announced James Franco — who’d previously starred in a similarly sordid tale of Florida debauchery called Spring Breakerswould direct from a screenplay by Andrew Neel and Mike Roberts based on the Rolling Stone article.

Taylour Paige was recruited to play Zola, but admits she was not a fan of the original script.

“At first I thought it was sexist and racist and a bit insensitive,” Paige (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Boogie) says now. “So at first I was like, ‘Why are we telling this story?’ And then I read the tweets and I was like, ‘Oh s**t. This is a movie.”

Riley Keough and Taylour Paige in 'Zola' (A24)
Riley Keough and Taylour Paige in 'Zola' (A24)

The film was briefly shelved in 2018 as Franco faced numerous sexual misconduct allegations; he was then replaced by Janicza Bravo (Lemon), who wrote a new script with Jeremy O. Harris (whose credits include the 12-time Tony-nominated Slave Play). Riley Keough (as Jessica, renamed Stefani in the film), Colman Domingo (as Stefani’s pimp, X) and Nicholas Braun (as Stefani’s boyfriend, Derrek) joined the cast along with Paige.

“I wanted so badly to bring it to life,” says Bravo. “I saw it so clearly when I read it. And I could see myself standing next to it for however long it was going to take for it to come to fruition.”

Like the tweetstorm, the film is entertaining and funny in its train-wreck depictions, particularly when it comes to cultural appropriation; but Zola is also undeniably dark and heavy, a low-key trauma tale sounding the alarm on sex trafficking.

“I think what’s really brilliant is because there is so much humor, because she’s leading with humor as she is exorcising and processing the trauma, that when you walk out of the film or once you’ve processed the thread, that to be able to engage with the subject matter, which is sex work, which is sex trafficking, I think it actually brings you closer as an audience,” says Bravo.

“What Janicza did so beautifully is she addressed very serious situations sort of disguised as this adventure, and this sort of fun, wild party,” Keough says, “while feeding the audience very serious subject matter.”

Zola is now playing.

Video produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by Jimmie Rhee

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