Released in 2021, Zola is a movie based on a true story told through a string of Twitter posts. The plot follows a dancer named Zola on a chaotic road trip to Florida. The film was directed by Janicza Bravo and written by Bravo and Jermy O. Harris. The main stars of the film include Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, and Nicholas Braun. This film was known for its unique origins and vibrant cinematography. Check out various screen facts below.
Based on Real Tweets
In October of 2015, A’Ziah “Zola” Wells wrote a total of 148 tweets depicting a recent trip to Tampa, Florida. At the time, A’Ziah recently returned to her waitressing job after quitting three months prior. “Okay listen up. This story long. So I met this white b**** at Hooters…” Zola began her story. The series of tweets quickly went viral, gaining attention from established individuals such as Missy Elliott and Solange. Rolling Stone said the story “reads like Spring Breakers meets Pulp Fiction, as told by Nicki Minaj.” The publication also did an in-depth interview with A’Ziah to get a more intimate look at what happened.
Getting to the Screen
Around the time the tweets were published, James Franco bought the movie rights. He wanted to bring the story to Hollywood. Originally, Franco was attached to direct, produce and star in the movie. Although, he took his producer credit off the film due to sexual harrassment charges against him at the time.
Zola was filmed in 2018 on location in Tampa, Florida. The film premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and was set to release later that year. However, due to the pandemic, the release date was postponed to 2021.
Preparing for the Roles
Taylour Paige, who played the protagonist Zola, worked at Crazy Girls on Sunset and La Brea in California. She had never worked as a dancer or stripper before which is why she took on the role as research for the movie. “I actually really needed the money. I was like, ‘F*** it. Why don’t I just go in undercover and see what this is like?” Paige said, then adding that the experience became more emotional than she expected.
As for the other main character, Stefani, Riley Keough was Janicza Bravo’s first choice. Keough said she got the most inspiration for the part of Stefani from the “lost in the sauce / lost in the game” tweet. She also joked in an interview this may be the first time she didn’t have to get naked on screen for a role.
Handling Appropriation with Care
A little known fact about Keough is she’s the daughter of Lisa Marie Presley and the grandchild of Elvis Presley. Elvis infamously appropriated black music and culture without acknowledging the debt to black communities. Keough’s character in Zola is a white person who appropriates aspects of black culture and sound for her own advancement.
During an interview with Sam Sanders on National Public Radio in 2021, Sanders revealed Keough “had to get special training on how to play a white woman trying very offensively to sound a certain type of ‘black’.” Taylour Paige stated her co-star was essentially “in blackface” for the entire film, complete with blaccent. Keough made it clear handling cultural appropriation with care was a big part of her preparation and was heavily discussed with the creator, Janicza Bravo.