When Janicza Bravo took over Zola — the screen-adapted story of a Detroit stripper’s disastrous road trip to Florida, originally told in a viral Twitter thread — she inherited a script written by two white men. Her first impression? “It felt very masculine. It was leading with its dick,” Bravo says, adding quickly, “Not that I don’t like leading with my dick, I do.”
That wasn’t the biggest problem. As a woman of color, and someone who was very familiar with the source material, Bravo saw right away what the screenplay was missing. “It wasn’t about injecting something more feminine,” she says, calling from Los Angeles in May. “It was about injecting a voice that felt young, electric, and black.”
The dark comedy Bravo made (whose release, originally scheduled for summer, has been delayed indefinitely due to the pandemic) is both dreamlike and crackling with energy — just like the story told by the real Zola. Back in 2015, a 19-year-old Aziah Wells (Zola is her nickname) lit up social media with a 148-tweet tale that began: “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” She posted four pouty selfies of her and a young white woman, Jessica, both clad in various iterations of leopard and lace. They had met at the Hooters where Wells waitressed and become fast friends, bonding over the fact that they both worked as exotic dancers. Two days later, they took off for Tampa’s strip scene, along with Jessica’s roommate and her boyfriend. Only the roommate turned out to be a pimp, a string of johns came calling, and all hell broke loose, until Zola managed to get home.
Bravo learned about Zola through an ongoing, years-long text thread with two girlfriends, all of them black women living in largely white spaces. (Most people are discussing “race 101,” Bravo half-jokes, “and I’m like looking to have more of a Ph.D. racial discourse.”) As soon as she read the tweet-stream, she sent it to both her agent and her manager. But “there were multiple other people, all far sexier than me,” as she puts it, who also wanted to turn it into a film. One of them, James Franco, won out.
Bravo, 39, wasn’t surprised — she assumed she’d have to work well into her forties before she’d get any kind of big break. Born in New York City and raised in her parents’ homeland of Panama, she graduated from NYU in 2003, and supported her self-produced theater projects by working in high-end retail and as a stylist for commercials and music videos. After winning a car in a raffle in 2009, she took off to Los Angeles, where she began to make short films, often about strange, outsider characters. In Gregory Go Boom, a lovelorn quadriplegic played by Michael Cera becomes so dejected that he casts himself over a cliff. The uncomfortable black comedy Lemon, her first feature, centers on an insufferable acting coach, played by Bravo’s ex-husband Brett Gelman, who drives everyone out of his life.
“I guess that’s my sweet spot,” Bravo says. “This feeling of being on the outside, looking in. Wanting to be a part of the pack, but not necessarily having the right criteria to be included.”
Lemon debuted to mixed reviews at Sundance in 2017, an experience that stung. “It was tough because the movie is difficult, you know?” she says. “I mean, I think it’s fun, and then, suddenly, when I read about it, I was like, ‘Oh, people are not having fun.’”
But by the spring of that year, Franco had departed Zola, and, after a rigorous interview process — during which she presented reference materials that included images from The Wiz and Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” — Bravo was tapped to replace him. There was only one problem: In her mid-thirties at that point, Bravo wasn’t sure she had the voice to channel Zola. “I didn’t speak like that,” she says. “I didn’t spend all my time on a phone. I had never worked at Hooters.”
She hit up the playwright Jeremy O. Harris (Slave Play) for help. The two had become friends one night when they were two of the only people of color at an L.A. house party “where white people were rapping along to a song that said the N-word, um, a lot,” Harris recalls. After learning that Bravo was a filmmaker, Harris became “obsessed” with her shorts, he says. “I had never encountered anyone with a voice as explosive and complete as hers.”
They also connected over a slightly cracked sense of humor. “Janicza is the funniest person I know,” Harris says. “And, like me, her humor comes from a recognition of how difficult life is. There is something deeply pained about her humor.”
Together, they dove into a new script, poring over Wells’ Twitter feed as well as transcripts and research materials from the writer David Kushner, who penned the definitive account of the road trip for Rolling Stone. Though he hadn’t worked at Hooters either, Harris, then 27, was able to bring a vocabulary (“young-speak,” Bravo calls it) that had been lacking. Most importantly, Bravo had a very instructive video call with Wells.
“Aziah, like many a writer, she’s able to step into a certain kind of personality,” Bravo says. “Zola is the Twitter story, but Aziah, who is the woman you’re talking to, is smaller and softer. She says please and thank you. I was really taken aback. You don’t feel that in the Twitter [thread], and you didn’t feel that in the old script. I wanted to make sure that Taylour Paige, who was playing that part, would have a parallel experience. When Zola is dancing, she is one thing, and when she is home, she is another.”
It was for the character based on Jessica — renamed Stephani in the film, and played by Riley Keough — that Bravo layered on “ratchet” qualities that would usually be associated with a young black woman, plumbing that vein of dark humor that powers her work. “She is the sort-of minstrel character,” Bravo says. “She’s the one blackening up, to a degree.
“The story, to me, is a comedy,” Bravo says. “And in every great comedy you have your straight man, and you have your buffoons. Aziah wrote the story as the straight man. So that meant that everyone else was the buffoon.”
A version of this story ran in Rolling Stone’s annual July Hot Issue, out now