Interview: Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris on bringing ‘Zola’ to the big screen and its ‘Wizard of Oz’ influence
Where were you when Zola’s tweets dropped? I remember getting a text from a friend that was like you have to read this hoe journey! “Hoe Journey?!” I said in disbelief. My friend wasn’t lying though, but it’s less about the story and more about the way A’Ziah “Zola” King explains the story. Her raw and comical storytelling is why six years later, there is a feature film about a specific time in her life.
Director Janicza Bravo and writer Jeremy O. Harris collaborated on bringing this story to life and crafted something out of the norm for the genre. The duo manage to make something as darkly comedic as it is scary, and put the audience right in the thick of the drama that challenges them to confront their assumptions about Zola and her 48-hour adventure in Florida.
AwardsWatch’s Valerie Complex sat down with Bravo and Harris to talk about why Zola’s Twitter saga was so captivating, and why they compare their film to The Wizard of Oz.
Valerie Complex: What made the Zola story stick out for the two of you?
I think what turned me on about the story was definitely her agency, but was that I was also able to see the inner workings of someone who is taking a very big step to move on past that which had left them touched. If that makes sense. I went after this story soon after it came out. And then it took a couple years and then it was mine again. And only a couple of places had mentioned that she was 19.
Jeremy O.Harris: One of the things that Zola… A’Ziah [Zola] omitted from her Twitter narrative that I think stuck out to Janicza and I a lot was something that was in the Rolling Stone story, or at least in the story she told him in the raw tapes we listened to. And that was the idea that, as soon as she got back home, after being this bad bitch on the trip, she wept in her mother’s arms because she was a 19-year-old girl, right?
I think that something that was really robbed of her in the celebration of this narrative online, was the fact that she was a young black woman, because we constantly rob young black women and young black people of their childhoods in favor of painting them as fully formed adults. She dropped the bad bitch veneer, and was like, “No, but I am a kid.” And like, “What the fuck just happened?”
VC: That’s not something that I had considered. Because I didn’t know her age. That changes my perception of things.
Janicza Bravo: A lot of people guessed but no one knew her real age. What ended up happening is it was a way to strip her of the generosity we would offer someone who was young. Once you make her 19, it makes the story a little harder to swallow. However, you’ll also be able to celebrate the magnitude of the story she tells.
VC: With the sex work aspect, how did you want to shape how sex work is viewed within the story? As there’s several sides of sex work that is shown in the film. Is that something you guys aimed for when putting together the story?
JC: Absolutely. I think, Jeremy and I, in terms of the writing, came to the process with our own list of things we wanted to be in conversation with. And how to represent sex work was one of the first things we were discussing. With that in mind, my approach to the sex work was, this is definitely the part of our movie that’s very serious and to the point.
It’s also something that I’ve talked about with my cinematographer, Ari, and with my production designer, Katie. Can you cite American films in which you are seeing women in sex or sex work, where you don’t feel some vulnerability where? Can you cite moments where it feels totally consensual? So, I wanted this exchange to feel consensual.
JOH: I remember one of the first things Jay said to me was like, “Jay, in this movie, I never want to see a naked woman. Period. I want dick!” And I was just like, “Say less.” Please say more.
I was just like, “That’s exactly what I’ve been yearning for.” Janicza and I both grew up with a pacifier in her mouth and European cinema on the television, and I’ve always been frustrated that Black films in America, that get big distribution, very rarely get to engage in those types of aesthetics. And those types of explorations, especially around sexuality and male nudity?
VC: I have this theory as the film reminds me a lot of Pinocchio and has a lot of Disney-like qualities. There is this kid who gets swept up in dangerous circumstances, meets all kinds of shady people and then gets to Fantasy Island, right? Also in Pinocchio, he’s in the situation because of the lies being thrown around.
JB: That’s a first! No one’s ever said that. However, I was inspired by The Wizard of Oz. Even Zola’s costume in the film is meant to pay homage to Dorothy. There’s this woman who really wants adventure. Home is black and white. And in The Wizard of Oz, she makes three friends that have totally changed her life. And, obviously, in our story, she makes three not-friends who have forever changed her life whom she wants nothing to do with. I feel we are very much like the ratchet Wizard of Oz.
JOH: There was a great moment that we kept trying to keep in the script where the signature song of The Wiz, “Home” was going to play in the background at some point. But in all seriousness, it’s what she’s thinking about throughout the story. Just wanting to go home. Wouldn’t you if you were in her place?
Zola is currently playing on in theaters from A24.
Photos: Jeremy O. Harris’s Twitter, A24