Back in 2015, just days after Aziah “Zola” Wells went viral with a now-deleted 148-tweet saga about a trip with a fellow stripper to Tampa, Florida, TMZ reported that Hollywood players had approached her about developing the tale as a movie. By early 2016, James Franco had reportedly signed on to produce, direct, and star in a film optioned from the Rolling Stone story based on the tweetstorm. Since then, it looks like plans for the film have shifted, per The Hollywood Reporter: Janicza Bravo, the Panamanian-American indie director whose directing credits include Atlanta, Dear White People, and Love, has co-written the screenplay — now simply titled Zola — and is set to direct. She’s backed by powerhouse indie producers A24, and actor Taylour Paige (Ballers, Hit the Floor) will play the titular Zola.
The story is Southern gothic meets Spring Breakers, a business trip turned violent horror story. While waitressing at a Hooters in Detroit, Wells, a former stripper, meets a sex worker named Jessica, her boyfriend Jarrett, and a man called “Z” and accepts their invitation to Tampa to dance at a lucrative club. Z turns out to be Jessica’s pimp, and he intends to turn both women out. The plan goes poorly, and, long story short, the trip ends up with a ransom kidnapping, an attempted suicide, and a murder. (A24, for its part, describes the story, in a statement to THR, as “a defining and legendary entry in the deeply American road trip genre.”)
The longer version, as originally told by Wells in 140-character spurts over several hours — just a few days before Halloween, no less — was so shocking and told so expertly that people on Twitter, including storytelling pros like Ava DuVernay and Missy Elliott, were soon calling Wells a literary genius. When the media got hold of the tale, it produced raving headlines like “Stop What You’re Doing And Read This Twitter Story Right Now” and “Everyone Is Having A Meltdown Over This Woman’s Story About A Trip To Florida.”
The Rolling Stone story that followed a month later (almost a year to the day after the publication of its now-retracted “A Rape on Campus” feature) was essentially a fact-checked version of the thread, including testimony from Jessica, Wells’ family, and Wells’ boyfriend Sean King. (The day the tweets went viral, an Instagram user claiming to be Jessica turned up in the comments of one of Zola’s photos. A brand-new Twitter user, also claiming to be Jessica, then started tweeting “her side of the story,” which went nearly as viral as Zola’s original tweets, until the poster came out as an impostor and chastised readers for being so gullible. Another version, presumably actually Jessica, surfaced on Reddit soon after. It was a whole thing.)
Franco and Killer Films (the studio behind Carol and I’m Not There) initially optioned the story, and Andrew Neel and Mike Roberts produced a script. Whatever screenplay Janicza Bravo and her co-writer Jeremy O. Harris are working with for the project now, they’ll share the screenwriting credit with those authors.
The Verge has reached out to A24 for further comment, including whether Franco is still involved; we’ll update if we hear back.