From Twitter to the big screen. Does the Zola movie live up to its viral beginnings?

Zola from a24, image courtesy a24
Zola from a24, image courtesy a24 /

Social media is incredibly powerful. Any person, anywhere, can log on, upload a video or message and go viral within hours. Your image may become a meme or your words might become a pop culture reference for years to come. For some, this may have absolutely no impact on their daily lives, but for others, it could lead to a new career, endorsement opportunities, or in Zola’s case, a movie.

Back in October of 2015, Aziah Wells (nicknamed “Zola”) logged onto Twitter to tell a story about a crazy weekend she spent with another young woman named Jessica Swiatkowski, Jessica’s boyfriend Jarrett, and a man who she initially thought was a promoter but later learned was a pimp nicknamed “Z.”

The full story ended up being 148 tweets long and included pictures which both added validity to her story and also made it that much more insane.

The thread went viral and trended on Twitter as #TheStory. Celebrities from the movie and film industries chimed in. Director Ava DuVernay even went as far as applauding the storytelling.

I remember the night and while I can’t say I read the entire thread, I do recall reading most of it and thinking to myself: “These things are literally happening around us every day and those of us living normal lives have no idea.” I had that thought in the theater as well and the reality is, the story may be more frightening than it is funny.

With great directing and acting, Zola brings a viral twitter story to life

When I found out there was going to be a movie about the story, I thought it was cool to see the power of social media on display but didn’t necessarily plan to see the movie. The story was about two strippers having a wild weekend and that wasn’t exactly the type of movie I could get excited for. However, when personal favorite Taylour Paige (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) was cast as Zola, they got my attention.

The film went on to cast Riley Keough (Mad Max: Fury Road) as Jessica (renamed Stefani in the movie), Nicholas Braun (Succession) as Jarret (renamed Derrek in the movie), and another favorite actor of mine in Colman Domingo (Fear the Walking Dead) as Z (renamed X in the movie). This is a strong cast that meshed nicely in the movie.

Each character brought a different energy and once the movie gets rolling that keeps the tension high. There is one moment in particular where a shift in Colman Domingo’s character lets you know when the movie is REALLY starting.

I won’t say too much but you will know it when you see it because my theater had an audible reaction. If I had to say someone stole the show, it was him. Though I may be biased.

Zola from a24, image courtesy a24
Zola from a24, image courtesy a24 /

How close does the Zola movie stick to the viral story?

It has been nearly five years since the thread was popular so over the years I forgot most of the story. I went back and read the recap of events (which earned writer David Kushner a writing credit) to refresh myself on the story and see how close the movie stuck to the events.

After reading it, the movie actually followed the story incredibly closely. There are maybe 5-10 minutes of the movie that you can say were altered to make it a bit more cinematic but it was a change that worked to great effect.

I don’t give spoilers, but I can say that the events portrayed in the Zola movie all line up with the story told via Twitter. However, there are two parts of the story that are connected in the movie that did not have that connection in reality.

The Rolling Stone article does a great job of having Zola confirm her story while also following up with Jessica and Jarrett to confirm or deny different parts. The parts that are disputed are minimal and there is even a moment in the movie where the perspective switches from Zola to Jessica so we can hear her side of the events.

Zola from a24, image courtesy a24
Zola from a24, image courtesy a24 /

Zola movie trigger warning

There are certain things you may want to know before walking into Zola so let me get those out of the way. First, this is a movie about strippers and sex work. There are a lot of sexual references, there are a few intimate scenes (nothing too crazy in that regard), and there are a few scenes in strip clubs (no full nudity).

However, there is full-frontal male nudity. One scene, in particular, is basically a montage of men dropping their pants that lasts maybe a full minute. It’s probably not a full minute but it felt like it while I was averting my eyes.

Second, the part of the movie that is frightening is when you realize that this story is a common way that young women become victims of sex trafficking. In fact, going back to the Rolling Stone article (I highly recommend it), you learn that Z ended up doing something similar to other girls and was eventually caught by police. Because of this, I look at Zola as a cautionary tale more than just a wild adventure story because it is very real and could have been worse.

Is the Zola movie worth watching?

Zola takes a while to find its footing. Early on, I was thrown off by the way both girls were talking and the seemingly over-the-top characters. The movie also makes some interesting stylistic choices with music, sound effects (twitter’s old whistle sound plays often when phrases from the movie come straight from the tweets), and moments where the characters are speaking out loud the words they are texting.

These things are more heavily concentrated early in the film. It felt like the beginning of Uncut Gems where you’re simply trying to get used to this strange world you’ve been thrust into.

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Early on, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the movie, but by the end, I appreciated the experience. With Zola, Director Janicza Bravo (Lemon) delivered on bringing a viral twitter story to life and making it just as entertaining as the thread itself.

Zola is out now in select theaters and will be one of the most talked-about movies this summer.