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The Real Story Behind ‘Zola’

The latest movie from director Janicza Bravo and A24 is about the most famous Twitter thread in history. Here’s the real story behind ‘Zola.’
Zola — Still
A24
By  · Published on June 24th, 2021

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story and Twitter thread that informed Zola.


After making its debut at Sundance in January 2020, Janicza Bravo’s Zola is set to be released in theaters on Thursday, June 30. The film, distributed by A24, is based partly on a viral, 148-tweet Twitter thread by Aziah “Zola” Wells from 2015, referred to simply as #TheStory, that famously begins: “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out?” 

What follows is a tale of sex-trafficking, murder, dancing, and drugs that evokes nearly every emotion imaginable, or, as FSR’s own Luke Hicks wrote in his dispatch from Sundance, “an absolute nightmare, the kind you don’t expect to unfold in a playful, comedic manner. That is until you read Zola’s tweets, which triumphed through the same uproarious tone in which Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O. Harris rightly chose to adapt the film.”

The film is also based on a Rolling Stone report by David Kushner, published a month after Zola’s thread, aiming to unpack the “real story” behind the Tweets. In the article, Zola admits to embellishing some aspects of the story. “I made people who probably wouldn’t want to hear a sex trafficking story want to be a part of it,” she told Kushner, “because it was entertaining.”

Others involved, including Jessica, the woman Zola refers to in the question that begins the thread, dispute some details that Zola insists are true. But, as Kushner writes in the piece, “one thing each of the participants agree upon: the real story behind #TheStory, of how young girls and women are held against their will by sex traffickers, is more fucked up and unconscionable than any one person could invent.” 

Here is a short recap of the real, or at least partially real, story behind Zola. 

Hooters 

The story began at a Hooters in Detroit, where Zola had been waitressing since the age of 18. One day, she struck up a conversation with a customer named Jessica, or as Zola refers to her in the Twitter thread, “this white bitch.” The two bond over their work as dancers and agree to dance with each other some time. According to Zola’s thread, the next day, she got a text from Jessica: “BITCH LETS GO TO FLORIDA!” Or, as Kushner reports in his article, “Do you want to come to Florida with me?”

After some initial trepidation, Zola agrees to join Jessica, Jessica’s boyfriend Jarrett, and their roommate “Z,” who Kushner names as Rudy and who Zola later learns is Jessica’s pimp, on their trip to Tampa. They arrive at a club in Tampa, where Zola makes $800 in a few hours. Zola then decides to leave, and it’s then when the night begins to go off the rails. 

Tampa

Jessica, according to Zola, then asked Zola if she wanted to “trap,” which, Kushner writes, “Zola knew, was slang for prostitution.” Zola says no, but agrees to stay with Jessica after Z checks them into a nearby hotel. “I didn’t want to leave her by herself,” Zola told Rolling Stone. “I kind of felt bad for her.”

After the first man arrives, Zola learns Jessica is charging just $100 for sex. Zola took matters into her own hands: “So I took some pics of her & put em on backpage. Along with a trap phone # with a MINIMUM of $500. The phone starts BLOWIN UP!!!” 

As the night went on, Jarrett grew more and more concerned. By the time they returned to the hotel room, Jarrett had posted on Jessica’s Facebook wall: “Hey, sucking old man dick for dollars? You’re the true MVP. Go Jessica!” According to Zola, he had posted a photo of Jessica’s BackStage ads, and Jessica’s mother was “GOIN OFFFFFF in the comments.” 

Eventually, Z, after a violent exchange with Jarrett, moves them to another hotel. Kushner writes, “Zola, Jarrett, and Jessica tell different versions of how the night unfolded from here. Jessica says only Zola took outcalls that night. Jarrett says both women went together on at least one trick but quickly left when the johns didn’t have the money. Zola says the only thing she did that night, while Jessica visited multiple johns, was try to talk Jarrett out of his relationship with her.”

The Call

This is where the story really gets murky. The following night, they received a response to Jessica’s ad from a man asking for a “special request”:  there would be five men, and Jessica would be paid $5,000. According to Zola’s Twitter thread, she accompanied Jess to the address and walked her to the front door. Jess knocked, and two men immediately opened the door and snatched her. Zola started running and called Z for help. Z, “LIVID,” showed up on the scene, entered the room with a gun, and found Jessica “Tied up. Knocked tf out” in a closet. A rival pimp kidnapped her and offered to buy her for $20,000. Z said no and shot the man after he reached for his gun. They all then ran out of the hotel. 

Zola tells a slightly different story to Kushner. He reports that Jarrett walked Jessica to the door and that Jessica was “cowering in a corner” when Z arrived. Jarrett, Kushner reports, offers an entirely different story: “According to him, there was no confrontation between Rudy and the pimp. He also denies Zola went with them on the outcall at all, saying he and Rudy alone drove Jessica to that hotel. When they went to pick her up, Jarrett says, Jessica was already in the lobby. The pimp never offered Rudy $20,000 for Jessica, he says, and she hadn’t been beaten.” 

The Fallout 

Z then gave Zola and Jarrett tickets to fly home the next morning. According to Zola’s tweets, Jarrett begged Jessica to come with them and, when she refused, he tried to jump off their hotel balcony. But Zola writes, “He didn’t fall all the way. He was stuck by his pants.” Zola later admitted that it never happened that way. Jarrett, in fact, made an empty threat to kill himself and angrily left the hotel room after Jessica refused to travel home. As Zola left to follow Jarret, Kusher reports, Jessica turned to her and said she hoped they could remain friends. Zola then “searched her eyes, and said. ‘I will never see you again.’” 

A few days later, Zola received a call from a jail in Las Vegas, where Jessica and Z had “allegedly coerced two other young women into trapping.” Kushner reports the horrific details in his Rolling Stone piece, but it ends with Z, aka Rudy, being charged with numerous crimes, including sex trafficking and sexual assault. Jessica, according to Kushner, accepts “some responsibility for her actions.” 

“As to why the stories diverge, sometimes so fundamentally,” Kushner writes, “it could be a variety of reasons: post-traumatic stress, the fog of time, covering up misdeeds. [The women and Zola] each insist that Jessica was as culpable as Rudy in conning them.”

The Rolling Stone piece ends with a quote from Zola, who says she “has not spoken to Jessica since Tampa, but also hopes their story will continue to raise awareness about sex trafficking in the U.S.” Zola’s Twitter thread ends with a far different sentiment: “If u stuck wit that whole story you are hilarious lol.” 

Will we ever know which details are totally true? Probably not. But one thing is for sure, I’m just one of the many people who can’t wait to see what Bravo does with this material and to catch Zola in theaters as soon as I can. 

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Will DiGravio began writing for Film School Rejects in 2018. He also hosts The Video Essay Podcast and owns a TV.