May 16, 2022 4:39 am

The story behind Zola: the controversial Twitter thread of a stripper who came to Hollywood

In November 2015, David Kushner, a journalist for Rolling Stone, published an extensive note entitled: “Zola tells everything: the true story behind the best stripper saga ever tweeted.” That announced truth came to reveal the secrets behind one of the most popular threads on Twitter, in which Aziah ‘Zola’ King recounted her extravagant excursion to Florida with a stripper she had met at the Hooters restaurant in Detroit.

On one of her evenings as a waitress, while dreaming of succeeding as a pool dancer, a young woman named Jessica, blonde and covered in tattoos, calls her to her table. They chat, Zola shows her her Tumblr blog, her photos in sequined outfits, and Jessica promises that one day they’ll work together. The next day, while looking the power girls on Netflix, he receives the mentioned invitation: to go to Tampa for a weekend to dance in strip clubs and earn interesting money. That’s where Zola leaves, on a journey that will have the best seasonings of reality and fiction. The story, celebrated on Twitter by Nicki Minaj as the unexpected meeting between Spring Breakers Y Pulp Fiction, he arrived at the cinema some time later, directed by Janicza Bravo and starring Taylour Paige and the excellent Riley Keough.

Premiered in 2020 at the Sundance festival, Zola, the film, reconstructs the version of Aziah King supported by the 148 tweets that formed the thread #TheStory and the confessions of the 20-year-old to Rolling Stone, giving a tense game of points of view between her and Jessica that works as the best condiment of the controversy. The thread, already deleted from Twitter, begins with the meeting of both in Hooters, the proposal to go to earn money in Tampa and the rampage of a weekend that includes a violent pimp, prostitution via Instagram, seedy motels, kidnappings , suicide attempts and an absurd course that seems to have no end. Zola presented her version, Jessica answered with hers, and the film was born from that encounter that combines facts and fictional passages that Zola herself confessed to Kushner as born of her own desire to retain the attention of her followers. “I got people who probably wouldn’t want to hear a sex trafficking story to want to be a part of it because it was entertaining.”, revealed the journalist, who traveled to Detroit to interview her a month after the thread that was a global trend. But how did the story begin?

On October 27, 2015, Zola tweeted that he had met Jessica ‘The White Bitch’ in Detroit, and that weekend they left with two companions: her boyfriend Jarrett, jealous and somewhat clueless, and his pimp Z, a violent Nigerian. who ended up having a stellar performance at the coven. “Drama, humor, action, suspense, character development,” tweeted Ava DuVernay, director of Selma. And yes, the truth is that Zola built the epic with the skills of an experienced narrator: the striptease at the Tampa Gold Club, the arrangement for private meetings, the threats and a business that ended up being more dangerous than imagined. But for Jessica the truth was different. “He ruined my life,” he explained to Kushner when he went to get his version, and assured that he had never prostituted himself and that it was Zola who wanted to do “extra work” in Florida. Aziah, for her part, admits to adding drama to the affair – Jarett’s balcony jump, Z’s shooting – but denies accusations that she sold sex on IG to pay for the trip.

Janicza Bravo came to conceive a script preserving the true spirit of the story: its fragmentary structure, mediated by the discourse of social networks, contrasting the voices of Zola (Taylour Paige) and Jessica -renamed Stefani (Riley Keough)-, prioritizing the urgent and dirty aesthetics typical of cell phone cameras and Instagram videos. The director was not the only one interested in the project. In 2016 there were rumors that James Franco would direct a version, then the idea stalled for a long time, perhaps due to the explosion of #MeToo that put the sex trafficking narrative in a different perspective and the emergence of a series of accusations for abuse against Franco that were publicized at the time.

The story of Zola’s (Taylour Paige) and Stefani’s (Riley Keough) journey from a Twitter thread to the big screen.

Finally, in 2018, the production company A24 picked up the glove, putting Bravo (known for the comedy Lemon), and garnered the best reception during its time at Sundance at the beginning of 2020, just before the pandemic (the film did not go through theaters in our country and can now be seen for rent on Flow, Claro Video and Movistar Play).

The fundamental merit of the film consists in turning those tweets impregnated with the euphoria of adventure, the discovery of suspense, the distant irony of observation and the inevitable horror of certain discoveries, in a solvent script that does not annihilate Zola’s freshness, the ease of his voice, the ambiguous coexistence between register and invention. Co-written with Jeremy O. Harris (author of the Tony-nominated play, Slave Play), Zola travels that journey with the same astonishment as its narrator, without losing the exercise of reconstruction that supposes having tacked that thread after living it. What is true and what is fiction in the film is a dilemma that Bravo herself runs from the axis of her search, focused on the playful confrontation of versions that break the fourth wall and dialogue directly with the viewer.

The character of Jessica/Stefani created by Riley Keough explores not only her own self-defense but also the contours of an archetype that has crossed over from ‘white trash’ culture to mainstream cinema, mixing her condition as a victim with the awareness of her own exploitation.

Zola (available on Flow, Claro Video and Movistar Play).
Zola (available on Flow, Claro Video and Movistar Play).

“I never asked Rudy – who became Z in Zola’s story and X (Colman Domingo) in the film – what he did for a living. I never cared,” Jessica declared in the interview with Kushner. However, soon after meeting him it became clear to her that he was a pimp. “I’d go to a party, find a drunk girl, take pictures of her, and before long I’d be on Backpage, a classifieds site used by pimps.” The aggressive face of Rudy/Z/X emerges in the story of Zola tied to the exit of the bowling alley, the requisition of the money they got on the track and the reservation of a hotel to which the clients would be sent. At that moment he realized that the photos that were taken at the Tampa Gold Club ended up on Backpage. “Zola was unable to determine whether Jessica was a willing participant or a victim of the situation,” Kushner sums up. That idea is revealed in the film as the key to deciphering the character of Keough, with his exaggerated accent and awkward seduction that seems to have no limits or recipients. The disturbing tone in which the horror seems to lodge beneath the absurd, the unthinkable, is one of the successes in Bravo’s gaze, which perfectly amalgamates the euphoria and the imminent darkness of that initiatory journey.

Zola it turns out to be a story shaped in the realm of social networks, not only because the narrative emerges from there, but also because the same tension between intimacy and the search for publicity come together in their own logic.. A Twitter thread, Instagram posts, photos on Tumblr, profiles built for the gaze of others, traps sustained in that opacity of identities that are never fully revealed. And as also happens with these viral discourses, what is true and what is fiction? Who says what happened and who has invented it? Janicza Bravo takes advantage of this imprint in her favor, even her moving camera and the sound suspended by calls and vibrations end up configuring a perfect story for these times.

Zola, by Janicza Bravo, is available on Flow, Claro Video and Movistar Play

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