How Zola, this year’s hottest movie, started with a tweet

Six years ago an unknown woman from Detroit wrote a series of tweets telling the story of an explosive weekend that included pole dancing and pimps — and it went viral. Now #thestory has been turned into one of the most talked‑about films of the year.

“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense,” tweeted A’Ziah “Zola” King, a 19-year-old black woman from Detroit, in October 2015, under four pictures of herself and a blonde white woman called Jessica Rae Swiatkowski. Pretty much everyone, it turned out, did want to hear the story; 147 punchy, lyrical tweets followed, each adding twists and layers to King’s account of how she was lured into a nightmarish weekend of hustlers, pimps, guns, sex trafficking and jumping off balconies. A Twitter epic was born.

“In that moment it began to feel like theatre for me,” King recalls over the phone. “I hadn’t planned the tweets. They just came. I felt like I was doing improv, like I had to keep going.” It felt as if the internet only had eyes on King. The thread went viral under the hashtag #thestory, think pieces were spawned, and King became A Thing. As the rapper Missy Elliott tweeted: “That Zola story wild … ended up reading the whole thing like I was watching a movie on Twitter.”

And now an actual movie is happening — making King the first person whose Twitter story has been adapted for the big screen. Titled Zola, it’s directed by Janicza Bravo, who co-wrote the screenplay with the Tony-nominated playwright Jeremy O Harris. The actress and dancer Taylour Paige plays Zola and Riley Keough (Elvis Presley’s granddaughter) is the fictionalised version of Jessica. So how did Zola become the hottest movie of the summer? And what’s the story behind it?

The saga began in March 2015 when King was working at Hooters in Detroit. A woman called Jessica came in; Jessica was a pole dancer like King. They swapped stories, became friends — intensely fast — and Jessica invited King on an impromptu weekend to Tampa, Florida, to dance in the clubs. Cash stakes were high. Who’s going, King asked. Just them, Jessica’s boyfriend, Jarrett, and Jessica’s roommate, called Z in the Twitter thread, Jessica told her. King signed up.

It started out fine. They drove down in Z’s car and all four had dinner together when they got there. But it didn’t take long for the trip to career off on to the wrong track. Jarrett (played by Nicholas Braun, aka Cousin Greg in Succession, in the film) was, to put it kindly, erratic and useless, and Z violent and cruel. It turned out that Z was actually Jessica’s pimp — and he now wanted King to sell sex for money too.

He took both women to a swanky hotel room he had hired on the other side of Tampa, a serious remove from the dump of a motel he had booked for Jarrett. As punters booked in, King realised Jessica had basically sold her out. Still she felt so bad for Jessica that she decided to stay to look out for her.

“Maybe I was a bit naive. Maybe it’s why I even went on the trip, but I was used to the man being the villain, not the woman,” King says. “I had Jessica’s back and I thought she had mine.” Not so. She had been duped. The night took increasingly dark turns. In the end it took all of King’s wiles to negotiate an exit and get home to Detroit.

Reeling from the weekend, when she returned to her house she wrote down what had happened on her blog and later posted it to Twitter. “It was kind of, ‘Hey you guys, you wouldn’t believe the weekend I had. A fellow dancer tried to sex traffick me,’ ” she says. That version didn’t take off: it was, in King’s own words, “very cut and dry”, harrowing. Not entertaining. “I guess I was still processing.”

Six months later, flicking through pictures on her phone, she came across the photos she had taken of herself and Jessica getting ready at the Tampa strip club before it all turned nasty. “I got triggered, maybe even inspired. I was, like, ‘I’m going to tell everyone how colourful and crazy this experience was,’ ” King says. This time she found her stride; her voice was inimitable and the phrases she used went viral. Here was someone who knew how to hold court.

Bravo, 40, remembers reading #thestory the day it came out. Her phone was pinging all day with girlfriends talking about the tweets. “I felt what a lot of people felt, which was that I hadn’t heard this voice before. It was really curious to me, sexy and enigmatic,” she says over Zoom from her studio in Los Angeles. Before she had even got to the end of the thread, Bravo knew she wanted to make this into a movie. “I felt I had to protect her and the story.”

So did a lot of LA. Five others were bidding for the film rights to King’s story. “I had nothing to offer except a creative arc, which is not monetary,” Bravo says, laughing. Initially it went to James Franco, who was to star and direct. But a couple of years later Bravo heard he was stepping back. She relaunched her crusade — and this time won the rights.

In the weeks after #thestory became an internet moment, Jessica and Jarrett shared their own versions of events. There was a lot of overlap as well as some differences — for instance, Jessica told Rolling Stone she had never prostituted herself — although the gist was the same. In the same Rolling Stone piece, King said that while she was posting the story she was caught up in the moment and the reactions of her followers. She tweeted later that it was “based on a true story”. “I was only tweeting the things that I thought added to the story,” she says now. “If it was a bit too dark or a bit too boring, I left it out and I amplified those dark humour situations.”

What didn’t surprise Bravo was how many picked apart King’s story, as if she were somehow to blame. “Every time her validity was questioned it was looked at in opposition to how a white woman was telling the story,” Bravo says. Racial dynamics are key to her film. “This is a story about how a black woman is seduced by a white woman, period.”

The feel of the film matches that of King’s thread: caustic, darkly funny, almost hyperbolic. Most of King’s tweets are repeated verbatim with a Twitter whistle cue. “It was important for me for the dark humour to stay. Because that’s how I processed it, that’s what made it so relatable for everyone. Because who wants to sit down and laugh at a story that involves sex trafficking?” says King, who now lives in Atlanta with her two young children. She is an executive producer on Zola, and wants to continue writing.

And it wasn’t, she adds, the first “crazy” experience that had happened to her. Which makes you wonder what the next #thestory might be.

Written by: Francesca Angelini
© The Times of London

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