Why Janicza Bravo had to protect the true voice of ‘Zola’

Filmmaker Janizca Bravo, right, gives direction to actresses Taylour Paige, left, and Riley Keough on the set of "Zola."
Filmmaker Janizca Bravo, right, with actresses Taylour Paige, left, and Riley Keough, center, while shooting “Zola.”

The new film “Zola” is equal parts hilarious and terrifying. The complicated comedy is based on the 2015 story told in 148 tweets by A’Ziah “Zola” King that began with the attention-grabbing lines “Y’all wanna hear a story about how me and this b— here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”

Those words proved to be an understatement, as the tale was a kaleidoscopic roller-coaster of sex work, violence, deception, manipulation and survival. In the movie, a waitress named Zola (Taylour Paige) is persuaded by Stefani (Riley Keough), a woman she had just met, to go on a road trip to Florida to make money stripping. The two men travelling with them turn out to be Stefani’s boyfriend (Nicholas Braun) and her pimp (Colman Domingo) and Zola eventually learns she is also expected to have sex for money. At times outrageously funny and at other moments stark and disturbing — sometimes in the same scene — the film is very much the work of director and co-writer Janicza Bravo.


After a series of acclaimed short films, Bravo had her feature debut with 2017’s “Lemon.” She has also directed episodes of “Atlanta,” “Mrs. America” and the current season of “In Treatment.”

Yet the road to making “Zola,” which opens in theaters on June 30, was not an easy one. There was another director and another set of writers attached to the project early on. Even once it became available again, it took months for Bravo to actually land the job.

During a recent interview for “The Envelope” podcast, Bravo recalled how she never lost sight of her initial response to reading that twitter thread when it became a viral sensation.

“I just knew, ‘Oh, I’m supposed to direct this. I’m going to make it,’” she said. “There weren’t a ton of thoughts that went into it. It just was like, ‘You’re directing this. This is your next movie.’”

As she read further, her connection only deepened, taken in by the complicated voice with which King told her story as a way of processing the emotional horrors of what she had been through.


“And so I found myself feeling like this is exactly how I would tell this, her way of exorcizing her trauma, her way of processing trauma, feels so familiar to me,’” said Bravo. “I feel so close to it. This is how I move through the world.

“And I think the thing that kind of pulled me to it was I want to protect this story, I want to protect the thing that she told and I’m ready to be on that ride,” she said. “And whatever it takes, I’m going to do it.”

That idea of protecting the voice of the real Zola became paramount to Bravo as she worked on the adaptation with her co-writer, Jeremy O. Harris. At the time they began the project together, Harris was still a student at Yale and had not yet written the Tony Award-nominated “Slave Play.”

“I think there is a version of this story that has a little less care and attention to detail. There is a real tightrope that happens,” said Bravo. “Her story is super fun. It is a real ride. I think there is also a version of this piece that isn’t engaging with the seriousness and the weight of what she is also talking about.

“And I felt my own relationship to my own work and how I was weaving humor and stress and anxiety and discomfort really could apply here,” she said. “And I wanted to make sure that, yes, we could make a movie that was fun. Yes, we can make a movie that felt like a f— party, but that also we were talking about something and that the women whose lives we were adding dimension to, that we were giving them dignity.”

Filmmaker Janicza Bravo, left, gives direction to actresses Riley Keough and Taylour Paige on the set of "Zola."
Filmmaker Janicza Bravo, left, and actresses Riley Keough and Taylour Paige during production on “Zola.”

Similar to themes Harris would go on to explore in “Slave Play,” the movie is specifically designed to trigger the different responses that white audiences and Black audiences will have to the story and its telling.

“I actively considered it when working on the adaptation, but whether or not I was active in how I approached it, it was already there. The story is so much about race,” said Bravo. “It is a Black woman telling a story about how her and a white woman fall out. So whether or not you want it to be about race, it just is because these two individuals move through the world differently. They’re looked at differently. They’re cared for differently.”

King’s initial twitter thread inspired a number of articles and explainers, including the piece in Rolling Stone acknowledged as part of the movie’s credits. For Bravo, many of those stories made her uncomfortable in how they approached King, her remarkable saga and her abilities as a storyteller.

“Pretty much in every piece that was written was [a questioning of] the validity of her story, not so much the events but the validity of it,” she said. “And I thought it’s possible that a lot of this isn’t true, but these events are pretty bleak. I’m not sure why we’re not talking about that.

“And here’s an opportunity for us to talk about forgotten girls, lost girls, and rather than that be where the discourse went, it went to whether or not her story was true,” said Bravo. “And so I felt like that meant that a Black audience was going to show up to this a little different, and a white audience would also show up to this a little bit different and also, you know, age range, all of that, like just for every person, there was going to be this individual experience of how they met these two women and the thing that happens to them and between them.”

This is the last episode of this season of “The Envelope.” We’ll be back with more new conversations in August. Other recent interviews include Kate Winslet for “Mare of Easttown,” Barry Jenkins on “The Underground Railroad,” Elizabeth Olsen on “Wandavision” and many more.


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