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A’Ziah ‘Zola’ King on Making an Authentic Film Adaptation of Her Viral Story—and What Comes Next

12 minute read

A’Ziah “Zola” King is well aware that her storytelling is exceptional. For the uninitiated, a brief summary: in 2015, at the age of 19, Zola chronicled a (mostly) true tale of epic proportions in a 148-tweet thread that began with a blossoming friendship and a road trip to a strip club in Florida and ended in a shootout.

The thread, compelling in its easy humor and wit yet ultimately chilling in the harsh realities it depicted (among them, sex trafficking and gun violence), captivated the Internet and was subsequently dubbed #TheStory online, going viral before going viral was a commonplace occurrence. Zola’s legacy online is significant—her grand tweet thread is largely credited with inspiring Twitter to create official Twitter threads, an easy way to link tweets together for more comprehensive storytelling, while her brief, cheeky turns-of-phrase, meted out in the limited characters of a tweet (“vibing over our hoe-ism” and “pussy is worth thousands”) quickly became Internet shorthand for an audience that included the likes of Jackée Harry and the poet Saeed Jones.

Within weeks, Zola’s dexterous way with words online had inspired a legion of followers—and resulted in offers for adaptations off of social media—chief among them, a feature film deal with James Franco, which Zola accepted. In 2017, however, Franco left the project and director Janicza Bravo took the helm, co-writing the script alongside playwright Jeremy O. Harris. Under Bravo’s direction, Zola became an executive producer and close collaborator on the film, ensuring that the essence and spirit of her original tweet thread remained an integral part of the movie—a relative rarity when Hollywood adapts a real-life story.

Read More: Zola Is a Wild Road Trip Movie That Works Against All Odds

The result is a film as thrilling and vulnerable as Zola’s original thread, astounding in its ability to conjure both laughs and horror, to tell a tale of friendship and betrayal, sex work and survival with care, nuance and honesty. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Zola is also a trailblazer in this respect: not only has she retained control over her narrative with this adaptation, she’s arguably one of the first to have adapted her Twitter presence for the big screen.

Though her life has changed considerably since 2015, when she first tweeted out her thread, Zola knows there are only bigger things to come. Ahead of the film’s release on June 30, Zola spoke with TIME about how she uses Twitter now, her writing, and why she’s working to break stereotypes around sex work.

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TIME: You wrote your 148-tweet thread in 2015 and now, six years later, it’s a film. And of course it was supposed to come out last year. What was it like to have to wait that long with all that anticipation?

A’Ziah King: I was anxious. We were so ready for it to finally come out so everyone could see it. It was like a gut punch for a minute—to be so ready for something and then overnight, everything got pushed back a year. At first, I was a little worried and kind of had doubt about it. But I think it worked in our favor, because it built the anticipation back up all over again. I think everyone was ready with this.

Your Twitter bio says, “I invented threads.” Now people write threads that go viral all the time. How has your relationship to the Internet and to social media changed since you wrote the thread that changed everything?

It’s kind of like a good and a bad thing. Because now people are more invested in the things I say online and analyze everything, which they did sometimes before. But now they’re dramatic with it! But I still use the internet the same way I did. And I use it for work purposes. It’s all the same besides the fact that there are a few more people watching. I still use it to vent, I use it to express myself, I’m on OnlyFans with it.

Do you think just being a person online has changed? In the early days of Twitter, it was a place where you could just pop off or be funny. And now, people will search your tweets or they’re trying to go viral.

That’s what I mean—they’re so much more dramatic with it. Because before you could really be unfiltered and just exist, really, especially on Twitter. And now you kind of have to watch what you say, and really be mindful of how certain people are going to interpret things. And Twitter was not about that in the beginning.

You’re also the mother of two daughters. Do you have any thoughts on whether you’d want them to be online as they get older?

I haven’t really thought about it. I don’t think I would mind—I’ve kept my youngest offline for just personal purposes lately, because with my oldest, people got really invested in things that I’ll post online and they aren’t always great. I learned my lesson there. So I’ve kept her specifically off of the Internet. But when they get older, I wouldn’t mind. Like I said, I use it as a tool to express myself and I found a sense of community on the Internet that I didn’t have in real life.

On both Twitter and with film adaptations, ownership and intellectual property are huge issues. How did you ensure that you were rightfully credited?

Originally, when [James] Franco was directing, he really wanted to make sure that I got that the credit I deserved. So in the beginning, the tone was kind of set. When he ended up stepping down and then A24 and Janicza [Bravo] came into the picture, we already had that foundation and Janicza just fought for it a bit more. When Janicza came, that’s when the EP credit came about. This was my first time, so I didn’t know the technicalities of it. I didn’t know what that was! But since day one, I kind of knew what I was worth, just based off of all of the conversations I was having. I already knew and wouldn’t have accepted anything less and then when Janicza came on, she really fought for me.

What was it like to have this kind of role on the film?

Janicza really wanted to make sure that she did it justice and kept it as authentic as possible. We began talking on the phone all the time. I didn’t end up actually going to the set because I was pregnant. So she’d FaceTime me and walk me through everything she was thinking. Same thing with Taylour [Paige]—she asked for my blessing before even moving forward. So Janicza, she’d send me pictures and be like, ‘Is this the way that your living room looked like in 2015?’ And I’m like, ‘Yep, feels pretty accurate.’ Taylour and I got close, on a personal level, but she really wanted to do it justice. She could really get inside my head, so to speak.

ZOLA (2021)
Riley Keough (left) and Taylour Paige (right) in 'Zola'Courtesy of Anna Kooris / A24 Fi—©A24 Films

How important was it to you that the movie retained the spirit of your story?

That was the main thing for me. Because, you know, we already have a lot of misrepresentation when it comes to sex work. It’s either a bit too glamorized or a bit too dehumanized. So I think that keeping it accurate to my actual experience was the most necessary thing. These experiences are taboo still, but it’s such a norm, this is something that could happen to anyone at any time. I wanted it to be a proper representation for just Black women in general—for sex workers, for Black sex workers. I really wanted it to represent us in the way that it really goes down.

I thought there was so much care given to the story and it really offered a different perspective on dancing and sex work, which we don’t always see given that kind of consideration in films. With this, do you feel like you’re in a position to break stereotypes around sex work?

I do and I’ve kind of always felt a sense of responsibility to properly represent that. And it’s mostly because I’m so comfortable in my sexuality. Even working in sex work, I was very sure of myself and sure of the reasons why. So I think it’s important for me to represent those girls, the girls that come from a good background and it’s not like they’ve been traumatized or that sex work is the last resort. It’s really a lifestyle and a certain confidence that comes with it. It’s important for me to represent that side of it.

I remember there was a tweet after your thread had gone viral where you had corrected director Ava DuVernay for making an assumption about where you had grown up because of your line of work. What’s the biggest misconception that you would want to set the record straight on?

The fact that I was led into sex work through trauma is totally, totally not true. Like I said, I was always confident in in my sexuality and myself. I remember in like ninth grade, they were like, ‘What are you going to do when you graduate?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna take a couple years off and be a stripper.’ And they were like, ‘What?’ And I was like, ‘It just looks fun. I’m gonna try it out.’ And that’s just always been me, so I would like to clear that up. And then ,[the assumption] that I’ve come from the hood—I don’t know why everyone assumes that! I just said the other day, my aesthetic is not hood. It’s not ghetto. I’m just a Black girl. I don’t really like that. I don’t know where that comes from.

You’re arguably the first author to have the a big screen adaptation of something that’s happened on Twitter. What do you make of that?

That part is crazy to me. I’m sure I wasn’t the very first to tell a story on Twitter. But I think now with this, we’ve kind of set the bar. So anyone that comes after me, I think they now know that it’s very much possible. And it’s very much possible to keep agency over your voice even after sharing your stories. I think there will be another and I’m happy about that.

Do you ever feel like people underestimated you or like your skills as a writer since your story originated on Twitter?

Absolutely. At first I was a little bothered because it almost seemed as if the story, the tweets in themselves, weren’t taken seriously until they were in print form, in Rolling Stone. People were entertained and they were all talking about it, but I feel like it didn’t become a real thing to most people until it was written in that form. And then for a minute, it became like, Zola, the story based off of Rolling Stone article, and it’s like, no, the Rolling Stone article based off the Zola story on Twitter. I always feel the need to correct it. We got to really credit the source here.

I think it definitely brings up a larger issue of whose voices we legitimize, especially when they’re telling stories.

And that’s what it was—it’s like it wasn’t the legitimate until it was rewritten by a white man in a very, very big place. And I was just like, ‘I guess? I mean, sure.’ But it was pretty legit when you were following every tweet and engaging immediately. I feel like that was a bit more legit.

Well, all the responses were happening in real time!

Right, everyone got to really interact with it! I think that’s another thing that makes it such a big deal. And so close to everyone’s hearts, because they remember really being a part. It’s like they’ve been on this journey too. Everyone remembers where they were and what they said. And I think that makes it a moment.

Do you have any more plans for writing, both on and off Twitter?

I would love to. I’m not necessarily, I don’t think, a playwright. But I do really enjoy writing. And I have a lot of experiences that I think are worth sharing. So I would definitely love to continue writing in some way or producing in some way. That is the goal. I guess I’m good at it!

I would love to know what your hopes are for your life after Zola is out in the world.

I’m one of those people, I take it a day at a time. So I don’t have too many plans set in stone. However, I am willing to continue on this career path. I mean, I have the content. I have the talent. I have the tribe, so I’m hoping that I continue writing in some way. I’m just really glad that my authentic personality is the reason why this happened. Because at times, I would feel a little a little ashamed or feel I had to water myself down to really be in certain spaces. And so it’s really touching for me to be here strictly just off doing what I always do, which is being myself and sharing my experiences so candidly with people who I consider my community and I’m really happy that my community was with me on this journey.

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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com