It takes about seventeen hours to drive from Detroit, Michigan to Tampa, Florida if you have a cooperative bladder. But it took A’Ziah “Zola” King a little under three hours to regale the internet with a road trip story so far-fetched that readers on Twitter thought she was lying through her pierced lip. The then 19-year-old fan of the Sailor Moon anime left the Motor City in search of fast money and maybe a little fun with a woman she’d just met while working at Hooters. But things went left like a busted grocery cart for the two exotic dancers. When their money from stripping came up short they were pressured into prostitution. While A’Ziah was able to talk her way out of the worst outcome, she was still so shaken by the ordeal that the first time she tried to tell the story she actually got cold feet.
“I tweeted when I first got home from the trip. I was literally off the plane for about five hours and it wasn’t a thread. I didn’t go in-depth,” A’Ziah tells VIBE. “It was one of those statuses like ‘You guys would not believe the weekend I had,’ and I kind of left it at that. I didn’t go into detail because I was still kind of traumatized. I was still processing what had just happened.”
“What had happened” was an impromptu road trip with a woman named Stefanie, her boyfriend Derrek, and an “associate” named X. On the night of October 27, 2015, A’Ziah sat at her Macbook and made another attempt to tell the story, this time firing off a 148-Tweet screed that was so fraught with drama and humor that it has now been made into a feature film starring Taylour Paige as Zola, Riley Keough as Stefanie, Nicholas Braun as Derrek and Colman Domingo as the duplicitous X. “Halfway through I was like should I delete this again? But the audience fed me the energy to keep going.”
A’Ziah became an overnight celebrity as her bite-sized missives detailing a wild few days filled with rival pimps, seedy hotel rooms, and bad decisions pushed past the digital boundaries of the Twitterverse and back into the real world where it originated. But more than the mere details, it was A’Ziah’s engaging and personal style that enthralled the audience.
“If I just told that experience just cut and dry with no laughs, I don’t think it would have gotten the same traction,” says A’Ziah. “I don’t think people would have related to it or been interested in it. At the time, the conversation of sex work was still pretty taboo. I wanted people to be receptive to it and listen to what I was saying. And I think in order to do that you have to have a little bit of humor. It was traumatizing but we’re going to laugh about this later.”
“I think that’s the interesting trick that she had with her Tweets,” adds Colman Domingo. “This story is so wild. It’s so dark, but in the moment it’s also very funny because it’s so outrageous you can’t believe it’s happening. It’s almost a satire on top of a satire. But she’s in it, so she can’t even see the tragedy yet. I think that’s the genius of the writing.”
Hollywood came calling after Rolling Stone ran a feature on A’Ziah, but like her early Tweet attempt, the first instinct isn’t always the best one. Actor James Franco was initially tied to the film as a producer, but when allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced, he left the project and director Janizca Bravo was brought on board. Most would argue that should have been the direction from the beginning, but water seeks its own level.
“I probably would not have done this film if it wasn’t directed by a woman like Janizca Bravo,” Colman says matter of factly. “If it was done by a guy it just doesn’t make sense to me. I think it needs a very strong, female perspective in every single way. I love the fact that men are objectified [in this film] You get a whole imagery of men breaking down the male body. Janizca is a truly incredible director and she’s very detailed.”
One of Colman’s favorite scenes is a moment when X “slaps the sh*t” out of a petulant Derrek and improvises in the moment by taking off his belt and beats him, putting an exclamation point on backhand. Bravo left it in because it spoke to the stress of the constant jockeying for power within the traveling circle of hustlers without saying a word.
Taking the story of two sex workers thrown together under suspicious circumstances could easily have gone wrong in less empathetic hands. But Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O. Harris held close to the original Tweets, only filling in blindspots where necessary and A’Ziah feels strongly about her direction and Taylour Paige’s portrayal of her.
“We got so close, Taylour and I, over the years,” she says. “When she first got the script she called me and asked for my blessing and if there was anything specifically that I wanted to get across. So we got close. She’s like my sister now. She really wanted to keep it authentically me and I explained I’m one of those people that talks with my face. I really don’t say too much. She dedicated herself to making sure my voice didn’t get lost in her acting.”
“I hope sex workers are appreciative of the representation because I don’t think that we’ve had that in this type of space. That’s all I can really ask for.” – A’Ziah “Zola” King
Coincidentally, ZOLA was filmed before Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the August Wilson screen adaptation that both Colman and Taylour appear in. After playing more affable characters like If Beale Street Could Talk’s loving father, Joseph Rivers, in ZOLA, Colman is able to play with his darker side.
“He’s no Cutler,” Domingo says of X, referring to the bandleader he played in Ma Rainey. “It harkens back to more of my theater work in a way, where I played everything, especially villains. So people can sort of unknow me again, they can rethink me. I look forward to the response and seeing how people feel about that. I want people to be a little afraid of me, too.”
In addition to doing some research on the real-life X, Domingo interviewed sex workers and their middlemen to get insight into their world.
“The way they mentally control women is awful,” he says of the pimps. “There’s moments that we put into the film where I can tell Stefanie wants X to kiss her so badly, but he controls her by looking her in the eye and kisses her on the forehead. It’s to keep her wanting more. It’s all these little details of what he does to control everyone around him. And to keep himself on top. It’s a little icky but the thing I had to do was find the thing that makes them human, utterly human. In every single way, I’m such a feminist, but you have to lean into that part that asks yourself, “What if I had to rely on these skills?” I think I’m a charismatic human being and I’m pretty smart. Who knows if I could have gone down that road if my life was different.”
However, what is merely hypothetical for Colman is reality for A’zia. The eldest of eight siblings from a suburb of Michigan hopes that her story will empower other sex workers and to break some of the stigmas around the profession.
“For some reason, sex work is always in a conversation of trauma or the ‘hood, especially when it comes to the Black experience,” she says. “These things aren’t interchangeable. I’m very multifaceted. I’m not ‘hood, I’m just Black. I’m existing in a Black space and a Black world and I get called ‘hood. On a grand scale I hope people understand just how not taboo this topic is. Sex work doesn’t come from a place of trauma. There’s many layers to it. I hope sex workers are appreciative of the representation because I don’t think that we’ve had that in this type of space. That’s all I can really ask for.”
Five years after the events that inspired ZOLA, much has changed for A’Ziah who is married with two daughters now. The solitude of the pandemic afforded her the opportunity to explore other artistic endeavors. So, in late 2020 she released a self-titled EP of music.
“I’ve always been in love with music and I’ve always expressed myself that way,” she says. “There was a lot of different energy around me and I needed to express it in that way. I wrote all five of those songs in twenty minutes. I was just listening to beats and I said I’m gonna record an entire EP this weekend. My mom was like you’re crazy–she’s my manager. I was like no I’m gonna need you to book a studio session, I need to get this out.”
On one song called “Lessons”, she raps: “Never been too much into loose ends/ never been too quick to make no new friends / …I met that bitch once now she calling me her friend…you don’t know my name, what’s my government.” It’s hard to not get a sense of deja vu when you inspect the lyrics. Were those bars for Stefanie?
“No, that was just how I was feeling at the time,” A’Ziah says with a chuckle. “There was a lot of that happening in my life at that particular time. But if the shoe fits she can definitely be bunched in there.”
Stefanie told her side of the story in a Reddit thread that makes its way into the film, so there is an attempt at balance. But make no mistake that ZOLA is A’Ziah’s story and her words–not a selfie or a leaked sex tape–have now been wrapped in a four-dimensional skin and pantomimed for our entertainment. But are audiences ready for a movie born in the Twitter matrix?
“Where are we finding the next Shakespeare? I think we’re finding them on Twitter,” Colman says optimistically. “Anyone who can really put together an incredible phrase with action and story in 140 characters, they’re dope. I know I can’t do it. I think we’re going to see more stories coming from Facebook or Twitter. There are storytellers out there who may not have access, but everyone’s got a phone these days.”
“I’m hoping that they love it,” A’Ziah says. “We’ve all been on this journey together. It’s been a long one and I think that’s what makes this film different. I think that’s what the audience really likes and is going to appreciate. We kind of all did this together, so I’m excited. I hope people see how authentic this film is. I think we set the bar and that future writers see that they can tell their stories and keep agency over their voice and really own their stories.”
ZOLA is in theaters now.