The movie had an arduous journey to the screen due to ongoing allegations around James Franco, whose company Rabbit Bandini bought the rights to the story, while Franco was originally attached to direct. A24 is now backing the movie, directed by Janicza Bravo (“Lemon,” “Atlanta”), and written by Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris.
In fall 2015, a woman named Aziah Wells (nickname: Zola) told an exaggerated — but not that exaggerated! — story of her journey from Detroit to Tampa, Fla. in order to make money stripping. Wells was conscripted to go to Tampa by a woman named Jessica, whom she’d met while serving her at Hooters; Jessica’s boyfriend, Jarrett; and their roommate, nicknamed Z, who turns out to be a violent pimp. What was meant to be an innocent trip of itinerant sex work turned into — in Zola’s Twitter version of the story — a dramatic tale of kidnapping, highlighted by a shooting and a suicide attempt.
The thread went viral, as did the hashtag #thestory, and was shared by the likes of Missy Elliot, Keke Palmer, Solange Knowles and Ava DuVernay. “That Zola story wild,” tweeted Missy Elliot, “ended up reading the whole thing like I was watching a movie on Twitter.”
In short order, David Kushner’s Rolling Stone article “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted,” which profiled Wells a few weeks after the tweets in Nov. 2015, was optioned by Franco’s Rabbit Bandini Productions, along with Killer Films and Gigi Films.
A source close to the movie confirmed that Franco took his name off “Zola” before it began shooting in order not to “distract from the project.” Franco’s credit does not appear in the Sundance announcement, though his brother Dave Franco is listed as a producer along with Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa, Vince Jolivette, Elizabeth Haggard and Gia Walsh.
Franco’s reps did not return Variety’s request for comment on the matter. Distributor A24 declined to comment.
In June 2018, Bravo took over directing duties from Franco and set the cast for “Zola.” The ensemble also includes a small role for Jason Mitchell, an up-and-comer from “Straight Outta Compton” who also starred in the Sundance player “Tyrel.” In May, Mitchell was dismissed from his Showtime series “The Chi” following harassment and misconduct accusations from two costars. Mitchell vehemently denied the accusations, attesting that the #MeToo movement had been weaponized against him. A spokesperson for Mitchell had no comment on his involvement in “Zola.”
Taylour Paige (“Hit the Floor”) stars as Zola, Riley Keough (“The Lodge”) portrays Jessica, Nicholas Braun (Cousin Greg from “Succession”) will play Jessica’s boyfriend, and Colman Domingo (“If Beale Street Could Talk) plays the pimp.