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“Zola” Is This Summer's Best Movie

BuzzFeed News talked to A’ziah “Zola” King and the cast of Zola about how this outrageous comedy got made.

Posted on June 30, 2021, at 11:57 a.m. ET

Even though she plays the titular role in Zola — the new dark comedy out this week that’s based on an infamous 2015 Twitter thread by A’Ziah “Zola” King — actor Taylour Paige admitted earlier this month that she had missed out on the tweetstorm when it happened. “I was a grandma on Twitter,” she joked. Both she and her Zola costar Riley Keough were doing Zoom interviews from adjacent rooms at the London West Hollywood hotel. Paige’s two rescue dogs — Aretha and Juice — could be seen lounging behind her. “I only would tweet positive shit and log out,” said Paige.

Keough, however, had firsthand experience with the internet phenomenon known as both #TheStory and (perhaps more fittingly) “The Thotyssey.” “I had read the Twitter thread in 2015, and in real time,” revealed Keough, who said she couldn’t tear herself away from her screen as it was happening. “I think I had the same experience as everybody else, where it was just riveting.”

The original Twitter thread has been deleted (but remains immortalized on Imgur, with nearly 7 million views). For the uninitiated, here’s the gist: Zola is a 19-year-old server by day and stripper by night who allows herself to be seduced by Jessica — a flirtatious white stripper — into a work trip, driving from Detroit to Florida to dance. Jessica brings along her squirrely boyfriend, Jarrett, as well as her enigmatic roommate, “Z.” The latter turns out to be her pimp, and Zola must contend with a chaotic, horrific weekend of deception, violence, and sex trafficking.

The stranger-than-fiction tale has become a piece of contemporary cultural history for the Extremely Online. Obsessives include the likes of Solange Knowles (who later cast King in her own film), Ava DuVernay (who praised untapped talent from “the hood,” to which King clarified that she’s from the suburbs), and Missy Elliott, who tweeted how she had read the wild thread as if she were watching a movie. The saga is indeed inherently cinematic. Readers called for it to be optioned for the silver screen while others began dream casting.

Now Zola the film, directed by Janicza Bravo, finally arrives in theaters nearly six years later. With a screenplay written by Bravo and playwright Jeremy O. Harris and an electric cast featuring Paige, Keough, Nicholas Braun, and Colman Domingo, the stylish dark comedy pulls you into a hellish, kaleidoscopic “hoe trip” that feels both hyperreal and surreal. Despite — or perhaps because of — the public’s familiarity with its tale, Zola is arguably the must-see movie of the summer.

But the road to getting a film made is far from seamless, even more so when there’s no precedent for it. Zola marks the first time intellectual property has been sourced from Twitter. There’s also the issue of timing. Zola experienced delays upon delays in each phase of its conception; its players have been getting ready to be ready for years now. The world looks different from when Zola’s story went viral in 2015 — Obama was president, Trump had announced his presidential campaign, and Vine was still a thing. Even when Zola finally premiered at Sundance in January 2020, there were only a few dozen reported cases of COVID-19 in the US. Viral Twitter stories are now a dime a dozen, dealt with on a daily basis and usually devolving into an often tiring, pointless, circular discourse. Moreover, the world’s become (hopefully) slightly more socially conscious, a bit more politically aware. We’re not necessarily laughing at the same things we used to.

And so the making of Zola is a long, intense, exciting story in itself: how it almost landed in the wrong hands and how its visionary director, Bravo, culled the people and resources needed to elevate an already outrageous, disturbing story into an otherworldly circus, all the while paying homage to its origins.

Still, it’s too easy and also false to call this a moment of arrival for Bravo or any of the team members behind Zola. It’s more a moment of expansion. “This experience for me is something that I manifested like my whole life,” King herself told Variety at Sundance 2020. “I kind of feel like everyone’s catching up to where I’ve already been in my head.”

Anna Kooris / A24

Riley Keough and Taylour Paige in Zola

When King’s story originally gained traction in 2015, effectively birthing the Twitter thread, it wasn’t the first time King had shared it. She had first posted about her harrowing experience the night she got home. It was quick — like a Facebook status, she told me in a Zoom interview in early June — and understandably devoid of humor. The second time she tweeted about it with a bit more detail, but was wary of what telling her story might lead to: “Her pimp and her and her boyfriend, they knew where I lived, they knew where I worked,” King said. “So I was telling it with that knowledge in the back of my head.”

It was only when she moved (she’s since left metro Detroit and currently lives in a suburb of Atlanta) and stopped working at the club that she felt ready to share her story more broadly. This time she did it in what’s become her trademark, funny flair. Nothing was drafted; she writes like she talks, and she’s a good talker. “I guess I've always just been animated in that way,” she said. “I process a lot of my trauma through humor, 'cause if there's anything you're gonna laugh.”

Telling her story was also a way of forging connections out of an isolating experience. “I didn't know to what extent it was going to entertain, but I did want feedback, if that makes sense. I wanted someone to say, ‘Oh hey, I relate to this,’” said King. At the time, her followers included a community of sex workers, dancers, and Black women. “I was really speaking to them and wanting to entertain them, as well as get them into my reality.”

Her humor wasn’t only a coping mechanism or a power-restoring tool — it became a calling card. Screenwriters asked her for free labor (she firmly declined) while production companies and independent filmmakers clamored to get her Twitter story onscreen. Among those fighting for the film was writer-director Bravo.

The Panamanian American artist had made a name for herself through directing a collection of eight shorts as well as critically acclaimed episodes of television, such as “Juneteenth” from the first season of Atlanta. Having carved out a niche in what she calls “stressful comedy,” she felt she was overdue to embark on making her first feature.

She contacted her reps, asking how obtaining the Twitter IP would work. Seventy-two hours later, they wrote back explaining that she could option an article about King and her “stripper saga,” written by David Kushner in Rolling Stone, and then get King’s life rights. “I was like, ‘All right, put me in, coach,’" Bravo told me in an interview in June. But she was told there were five bidders at the table. “I was like, ‘I have no bidder, I have no cash. All I can offer is directing, which doesn't pay anybody, so I'm obviously not gonna be a part of this.’" She’s not sure if her name even made it into the mix. James Franco got the gig.

Almost two years later, Bravo’s friend, actor Jodie Turner-Smith, was at a party at Chateau Marmont and got the hot tip that Franco was no longer attached to direct. “She texted me in the middle of the night and was like, ‘Babe, Zola’s available.’” Bravo immediately reached out to her reps.

“I spent about three months auditioning for it, and that looked like sharing images and music and color and feeling, and then I ended up getting it,” said Bravo. “I wasn't the first choice; I don't know if I was the 10th choice, but I was the choice.”

Jeremy O. Harris, the screenplay’s cowriter and Tony-nominated playwright of Slave Play who was also in on our Zoom chat, jumped in: “She's being very modest right now, but she had worked her ass off for this role. Harder than almost anyone I had ever seen work for something.”

Two months into her audition process, Bravo had shared with Harris her Dropbox, which was teeming with material for potential and proposed inspiration. He couldn’t believe they hadn’t given the project to her yet.

“I was like, ‘J, I'm sorry, but if this is what they're making you do for [Zola], I don't know if this is the right move for you. This is too much work,’” said Harris. He was worried: “I didn't want my friend to have to go through this sort of emotional turmoil that women of color constantly have to go through, to prove themselves as worthy.”

Harris said he sometimes feels embarrassed for how discouraging he was, but Bravo reassured him; she knew he was trying to safeguard her. “Especially knowing what my experience was on Lemon and what the reception of Lemon was...I think you didn't want me to have to revisit that again.”

Dia Dipasupil / Getty Images

Aziah King and Taylour Paige attend the Zola premiere during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 24, 2020.

Lemon (2017) was Bravo’s feature directorial debut, which she cowrote with her then-partner Brett Gelman (who also starred in the film). The dark comedy earned a Sundance premiere — a filmmaker’s dream — but the reception wasn’t what they had hoped for. “It was really jarring and kind of discombobulating,” said Bravo. “We weren't trying to make this thing that was ugly or off­-putting. And so, that was what it was landing like. It felt like something had been lost in communication.”

“I think the thing that was the most painful was that there was a lot of criticism around it, that I felt was trying to stop me from ever getting to do that again. I felt that there was this door closed. … That was really hard, because I thought, ‘Oh, are these people going to actually stand in the way of my dreams?’”

It’s easy to mischaracterize Zola as a chance for Bravo to “redeem” herself, to prove wrong those who once denounced her or denied the validity of her voice. But Bravo wanted to make Zola out of a protective instinct. "Jeremy, I know this is a lot,” she had told her friend. “But I think I need to do this 'cause I wanna protect this woman and this story."


The Script

Bravo didn’t just enlist Harris to write the film with her — she advocated for him. He’s a sought-after name now, but his accolades came after he signed on to Zola. At the time, the queer Black scribe was still a grad student in Yale’s playwrighting program, unproduced and relatively unknown. But Bravo needed a cowriter who was well versed and up-to-date on the lexicon of social media. Plus, she knew her friend regarded the Twitter thread with the same reverence as she did.

“Although this was a traumatic experience for me, I was very content in my sex work.” 

“I think that what's so beautiful about the movie that Janicza made and that we crafted on the page is that we did not decide that the Twitter story was unworthy,” said Harris. “We decided that it was more than worthy, that it was epic and historic and a part of a literary tradition that should garner epic adaptation.” (A24 has accordingly compiled King’s tweets into a hardcover book, complete with a foreword by Roxane Gay.)

Before they began, the duo had three pools to use as resources: the interview audio and transcripts from the Rolling Stone piece; the script written for the Franco adaptation; and the Twitter thread itself. In addition, Bravo — who had studied directing and design for theater at NYU — acted as her own dramaturg, poring through everything that had been written about King. What they came up with, in the end, was a page-one rewrite much closer to the source material. (The Franco adaptation took more creative liberties, digressing from the Twitter thread and inventing details.)

It speaks to King’s natural storytelling ability that the thread provided a seamless outline and perfect three-act structure. So, instead of conjuring up new material, Bravo and Harris saturated what was already there — dialing the Zola universe up into a gonzo, mesmerizing hyperreality that also functions as a love letter to the internet circa 2015.

Many of the choices are decidedly playful. Direct quotes from the OG thread are punctuated with a breezy Twitter whistle, denoting the gospel of Zola like a rubricated Bible. There’s a GoPro-shot Migos sing-along as the foursome cruise down the highway. At one high-tension point, Zola checks out mentally and turns into a glowing, amorphous screensaver. When a spirited montage of clients and their penises cycles through — thus alluding to the exhaustiveness of sex work — an Instagram heart flashes over the largest one.

The blithe vibe is one that King herself feels was important to tap into. “Although this was a traumatic experience for me, I was very content in my sex work,” said King. “So was [Jessica]. She knew what she wanted to do, she was a very strong-minded woman, and she just enjoyed sex work. So I think that people may critique the fact that it's dark humor, yes, but you also have to understand that there are so many different layers to sex work; it's not all serious.”

Anna Kooris / A24

Riley Keough and Taylour Paige in Zola

Though the integrity of the Twitter thread remains intact, Bravo and Harris did take a few liberties in the plot for dramatic and/or comedic effect — particularly where King herself admits to have done the same. They renamed characters apart from Zola (Jessica became Stefani; Jarrett became Derrek; and Z became X). They also created new, short-lived moments that rounded out the world-building. One such scene was written after Bravo saw a video of strippers praying backstage at a club. “I’m like, ‘Yes, that’s what we need. We need the Holy Spirit,’” said Bravo. “I thought it was such a magical kind of window into something that none of us would necessarily know firsthand.” Bravo added her own rousing prayer circle scene, which would end up being performed zealously by Ts Madison. (“If he got good credit, Lord, we know you sendin’ him with a big dick,” Madison extols.)

A litany of cinematic, literary, and artistic references and influences — from David Lynch to Hieronymus Bosch, from Coffy to Clueless — are peppered throughout the script. Some of these Easter eggs, such as the Clueless one, appear by means of the film’s wardrobe. Bravo used to work as a costume designer, so her emphasis on apparel is unsurprising and deeply visually satisfying thanks to the work of Zola’s own costume designer Derica Cole Washington. When Zola first embarks on her journey away from home, for example, she dons a blue gingham outfit and Nike Cortez sneakers with a red swoosh — a nod to Dorothy and her ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz (though in this topsy-turvy story, she encounters three foes instead of friends).

Harris and Bravo’s experimental and artful script, full of meticulous detail, created a map to a vivid and off-kilter world. Now it was time to find a cast to bring it to life.


The Cast

Bravo was at a cafe in the Larchmont Village neighborhood of Los Angeles when the actor Taylour Paige walked in: “I was like, ‘It’s her. That’s the girl.’” Bravo had caught a split-second glimpse of Paige on TV before, but didn’t know her name or what the show was (which didn’t give her casting director much to go on). So with Paige suddenly in front of her, Bravo made sure to take a picture of her from afar. She said Paige noticed and was not impressed, shooting her future director a look. “She makes it look so shitty, but it’s the best kind of shitty,” said Bravo gleefully. “I was like, ‘That’s the Zola — that face that she’s giving. Everything she’s emitting through her gaze is exactly this figure I want in this world.’”

Paige (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; Boogie) had actually first auditioned for Zola in 2017 when Franco was at the helm and the screenplay had been written by two white men. However, she taped it reluctantly. “The original script I got was quite sexist and racist and didn't feel like a Black voice, her voice at all,” Paige told me. So when she heard that a new team was behind it, her interest was piqued.

Paige sent in a new tape, competing against nearly 800 other young women. After landing a callback, she reached out to the real Zola, praising her and seeking her blessing. King had seen Paige’s tape and, according to Paige, the adoration was mutual: “She was like, ‘You've had a stan in me since day one; you're so me it hurts. I'm not taking no for an answer.’" Bravo offered Paige the role.

Colman Domingo (Fear The Walking Dead; If Beale Street Could Talk), who plays X — the nefarious Nigerian pimp — was the next to sign on. Bravo approached him directly. “My favorite bad guys are the people you inherently root for,” said Bravo, pointing out Domingo’s natural charm. “From the first time you see him, you like him and you want to be next to him…And so when he is rotten, I think it takes a while for you to accept it because there’s so much pleasure in the way he plays.”

Domingo cited the dynamic script as what drew him to the film. Nicholas Braun, who joined the project next as Stefani’s boyfriend Derrek, agreed.

“It wasn't like anything I've ever read before,” said Braun over Zoom with me and Domingo earlier this month. “And this foursome is such an odd foursome.”

“There's something at the center that they all need, which draws them to each other. But on a good day, they should not be in a car together,” agreed Domingo with a laugh. “It's just a recipe for disaster.”

Anna Kooris / A24

Colman Domingo in Zola

Bravo had watched the first season of Succession when she saw Braun had sent in an audition tape, so she was already a fan of his work. But she especially appreciated his read on Derrek. “I love the sensitivity with which he was approaching the whole world,” said Bravo. “That plays to him feeling a bit isolated and like he isn't exactly inside of the world. He actually feels that emotionally in his approach and also his character, so he's in a serious drama while the rest of us were in a comedy.”

“We joke in this group chat about how she's like 30 different white women that we don't know, and then the one that we know at the same time, because she can look so different to me.”

Zola is first and foremost meant to be a funny film. Bravo knew that in order for the comedy to land, she needed an outrageous clown to play against Zola’s clearheadedness. And so Riley Keough (The Girlfriend Experience; American Honey) became the final cast member to round out the oddball ensemble. As Bravo’s first choice for the role of Stefani, the “white bitch” who befriends (and ultimately betrays) Zola, she was approached directly due to her chillingly chameleonic nature. “We joke in this group chat about how she's like 30 different white women that we don't know, and then the one that we know at the same time, because she can look so different to me,” said Bravo. “I don't know that she is credited as much as she deserves to be for what a powerhouse performer she is.”

Keough was keen as soon as she read the script. “I just figured whoever had written the screenplay was a genius, and then I met Janicza, and she was incredible,” said Keough. “It was kind of like a no­-brainer in terms of doing the film.”

“We all know that Riley Keough understands the assignment,” said Paige. “So we were just waiting on her to be like, ‘Yeah.’”


Production

Production began in late 2018, mostly in Tampa — the scene of the original story and, in Bravo’s opinion, a location where the light and textures are irreplicable. The film was shot on 16mm by cinematographer Ari Wegner while Katie Byron handled production design. Bravo had assembled a diverse team — each department head was either a woman, a person of color, or both — supplemented by a local production crew. Days were long and sweaty. The motels were adorned with stains, splatters, bullet holes, and sometimes home to fleas and bedbugs. MAGA and Blue Lives Matter energy permeated the atmosphere, according to Paige. (In the film, Derrek drives by a scene of police brutality where the victim screams that he just wants to go home. Meanwhile, trafficking elsewhere goes unchecked.)

The actors arrived in Tampa ready. Domingo says he avoided learning too much about Akporode “Rudy” Uwedjojevwe, the real-life (and currently jailed) man his character’s based on. “Does he have papers to work legally? I made a choice that he doesn't,” said Domingo. He researched the psychology of pimp culture while making sure X didn’t come across as a caricature or a prototypical mustache-twirling villain. “I wanted to look at just making this a very human person. And he's funny and he's weird and sexy.”

Braun’s erratic, tragicomic portrayal of Derrek, on the other hand, was decidedly less sexy — he sports a chinstrap beard, baggy True Religion jeans, a silver chain, and a backwards cap over greasy hair — but also surprisingly humanizing. “Derrek's come up with a persona he thinks he's pulling off,” said Braun. “But underneath that I think he's kind of fragile.” He lost 25 pounds in three weeks for the role, thanks to a crash diet of mostly candy and caffeinated drinks. He saw Derrek’s relationship with the manipulative Stefani as an affliction: “I think he's really lonely and doesn't know how to fix his loneliness.”

“A lot of the prep for me was that accent and really taking Janicza's direction and really going there in terms of her appropriation and how offensive and demonic [Stefani] is.”

Zola’s two leads did considerable prep to embody their characters. Keough worked with a dialect coach to nail down Stefani’s over-the-top, Woah Vicky–esque blaccent. “A lot of the prep for me was that accent and really taking Janicza's direction and really going there in terms of her appropriation and how offensive and demonic [Stefani] is,” Keough told me. She’d practice at home, recording her speech and listening back to catch any slips. At one point, her coach convinced Keough to use her over-the-top African American Vernacular English, or AAVE, affectation at the Swap — a staple LA market for sneakers, grills, tattoos, and the like. “I was completely mortified,” admitted Keough. “But I think that when you're embodying a character and you're really giving them life and turning into them, you have to fully commit.”

Meanwhile, Paige’s commitment to Zola also bled into her real life. She decided to strip at Crazy Girls in Hollywood for four weeks: “I went and worked. And I needed the money.” A trained dancer since she was three (she spent years being taught by Fame’s award-winning Debbie Allen), Paige took some private lessons with a pole master to get the basics down. At the same time, she also wanted to unlearn her formal training. “I didn't wanna look technically beautiful, like an FKA Twigs. I wanted to look like someone who's like, ‘I'm working at a restaurant. I might as well strip — I can shake my ass. Like, fuck it.’”

On Keough’s first day of shooting, she came to set after being processed through wardrobe (Dior) and hair (edges laid into a squiggle pattern). Stressfully cartoonish and at the point of no return, she asked Bravo one last time for reassurance: “Is this gonna be OK?” Bravo admitted she wasn’t sure, but she knew that they had to be doubtlessly confident and intentional in their approach. “If we backstep just a little, then we start to mess it up,” Bravo explained to Variety in 2020.

Meanwhile, Paige had to ground herself, playing the foil to Riley’s bombastic and clownish Stefani. Though her emotive eyes and the subtlety in her silence convey multitudes, sometimes Paige wondered if she was doing enough. But she would then remind herself that she was there to do the real Zola justice. A self-described “recovering people pleaser,” Paige sees the titular hero as the version of herself that is unapologetically assertive, confident, and sexy: “It's like when I remember my worth.”

Anna Kooris / A24

Nicholas Braun and Riley Keough in Zola

For all that Zola is classified as — a dark comedy, a terrifying thriller, a road movie, a stripper saga, a true trafficking story — its status as something of a breakup story seems (so far) less recognized by early reviews. But it is a story of heartbreak and betrayal. It’s there in the film’s first and last words, in the infamous tweet that started it all: Y'all wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch here fell out???????

The final cut of the film, with an inspired score by Mica Levi and edited inventively by Oscar nominee Joi McMillon (Moonlight; Lemon; The Underground Railroad), has an especially notable moment that diverts from Zola’s thread; during one of the more unsettling scenes, Stefani breaks the fourth wall to recite her version of the events, just as her real-life counterpart had once done on Reddit.

Even in the realm of the otherworldly film, the section feels alien. Angling herself as a puritanical princess who’s performing in an infomercial, Stefani appears in a powder pink dress suit, hair pulled into a sleek top knot. As she explains her version of the weekend, Stefani name-drops her lord and savior Jesus Christ and pronounces X’s actual Nigerian name with a superfluous click consonant. Zola is depicted as dirty and trashy — she has hay in her hair and wears a literal garbage bag — and is deemed a “jealous bitch.”

“I do get triggered when people ask me about [Jessica], or ask if I feel guilty for speaking on her in the way that I did.”

“The reason we wanted to do a Stefani version is, we knew that some portion of the audience was going to arrive at the story already questioning Zola, already questioning Taylour. On first sight, they were going to dismiss her somewhat — whether consciously or unconsciously — because, well, racism and prejudice,” explained Bravo. “So I thought we should have this moment and we should see how symbiotic their stories are. You get to play with how each person processes traumatizing events.”

Its absurdity lends itself to laughter (at the post-premiere Q&A, Harris said that, as opposed to Zola’s Twitter thread, Stefani’s story “moves like Reddit, which is kind of awkward and ugly.”) But it also makes a pointed statement about how white women weaponize privilege and presumed innocence. In addition, it addresses the many articles that had questioned the Twitter thread’s validity. “A lot of those pieces were also asking, ‘Well, what was Stefani's version?’" said Bravo. “The idea of this white woman as a seducer, as a violent presence was, I think, hard for some of those journalists to contend with.”

The inclusion of this scene may serve a greater purpose in protecting Zola as a character, but also as a human being. When I asked King about where she is in her healing process, she said she has processed her trauma — “I’ve been through so much; that’s just a little part of it” — but one particular thing can resurrect bad feelings.

“I do get triggered when people ask me about [Jessica], or ask if I feel guilty for speaking on her in the way that I did,” admitted King. “It bothers me because it's like I didn't speak about her in any particular way. I just said exactly what I saw her do... She seems to play victim and then that really bothers me, 'cause even me being the victim, I didn't victimize myself in the situation, you know?”

Anna Kooris / A24

From left: Riley Keough, Taylour Paige in Zola.

I was lucky enough to attend a late-night screening of Zola at Sundance last year — one of the festival’s hottest tickets. I had fun, but also walked out conflicted, my brain firing on all cylinders. It’s a feeling I’ll sometimes have when I’m 1) in a mostly white audience (often) and 2) watching a movie that centers people of color (not so often). Film-viewing experiences are always subjective, but it’s these instances where, after witnessing the crowd's uproarious response and how they laugh, I’m left wondering if I saw the same film as everyone else around me.

The majority of Zola’s Sundance reviews were positive (though some seemed to write it off based on its Twitter origins alone). There were also white reviewers who praised the film, but with insensitive language. One Twitter review described it as a funny and frightening “ratchet nightmare.” Another reviewer described it as his (?!) kind of “ghetto-tastic” road trip saga (he’s since deleted the tweet). And then there was a People article announcing that Keough was starring in Zola, with no mention of Paige. (A tweet from A24 cheekily corrected them; People changed its headline.)

It all speaks to the possible denial of how this technicolor fever dream is very much about a black and white world. Given how bombastic Stefani is and how focused on Zola’s interiority the film is, I asked Bravo and Harris whether they worry some viewers may miss the film’s core messaging.

But Bravo explained that she sees Zola, who serves as the film’s narrator, akin to an aside-reciting Shakespearean actor or perhaps a silent film character: “She isn’t quiet to us. … While it may seem like her voice has been robbed, she's writing the story. She is a witness to the event, and her eyes are our eyes."

Harris then points out how Black characters have been denied interiority in most popular media and prioritizing that interiority in Zola provides a necessary respite. “I throw that anxiety of how [white people] are going to witness it, or see it, out of the window, and more so just hope it will age in the way that it should,” he said. “Because as more people read the White Fragility that they have as a doorstop — as Janicza always says — they might realize, ‘Oh, wait a second; the thing I wanted from Zola is the thing I've never asked for from any character in a Martin Scorsese movie who's quiet for 90% of the movie, or from any movie by Claire Denis.’”

“Yeah, I hope you laugh. I hope you feel complicated about the fact that you're laughing, but also you feel complicated for all of them.” 

In its handling and presentation of Zola’s interiority, the film reframes the potential of modern cinema. “This is something I hope will become a new understanding of Black and brown characters in the next decade,” said Harris. And so Zola encapsulates a specific moment in the past, while also being both timely and forward looking.

“I think it's really an examination of American culture, about who we are truly, about race. I think it's about all the weird dark things about appropriation of culture, what are we coming into the movie believing the movie is about, and then what are we unpacking afterwards,” said Domingo. “There are a lot of very profound topics that Janicza handles so amazingly, of course, under this guise of comedy,” echoed Keough, affirming the film’s satirical nature.

Braun said that although many will be coming to Zola having read the Twitter thread, the film is a different — and more unsettling — phenomenon that you’re forced to sit with, instead of speedily scroll through. “With this — the way Janicza filmed it — you're so much more inside of what they go through,” said Braun. “You kinda have to feel the weirdness of it all more than the Twitter thread. So hopefully, people get uncomfortable and then also find it fun as hell.”

“Yeah, I hope you laugh. I hope you feel complicated about the fact that you're laughing, but also you feel complicated for all of them,” said Paige. “I hope that people will have complicated empathy, but understanding maybe.”

Zola is the rare film production where the process feels as meaningful and weighty as the product. Still, despite Zola’s extended gestation and long-awaited release, Bravo says she isn’t overly attached to the film’s outcome. The lows in her career have toughened her skin, forging a calm confidence in her work regardless of how it’s received.

“I know what I meant; I know what my intentions are. I was lucky enough to get to make this with one of my closest friends, and to be able to work in community with this really beautiful cast, and my production designer, my cinematographer, my editor — we just made family,” Bravo told me. “And so, I do hope that it lands. But if it doesn't, what happened behind the scenes between all of us is so special. And that's a gift.” ●

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.

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