One of the summer’s buzziest movies is Zola. It’s got all the makings of a hip indie hit: It’s an A24 film written and directed by up-and-coming indie director Janicza Bravo, with a co-screenwriting credit from Slave Play’s Jeremy O. Harris. The stacked cast includes American Honey’s Riley Keough and Cousin Greg from Succession. Also, it’s full of scenes about strippers and sex work and murder! What could be more dramatic?
But what’s most unusual about Zola is that, while it’s based on true events, it’s not based on a news story in the traditional sense, or even on a book. Zola is based on a viral tweetstorm from 2015 by A’Ziah “Zola” King.
“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out????????” King began her tale in 2015, over a picture of herself posing next to a young white woman in lingerie. “It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”
Back then, Twitter didn’t have threads yet. King would require 148 tweets to tell her “kind of long” story, and none of them were linked together. As her saga spread, people began passing around screencaps of the full narrative so you didn’t have to scroll down to the very bottom of her timeline to read the whole thing. Twitter was a cumbersome platform for this kind of long-form storytelling — but it didn’t seem to matter.
Now, with Zola in theaters, A24 has released the original tweetstorm in book form. It’s titled simply The Story, and it’s a lovely cloth-bound edition, very literary-looking, with every page given metallic purple edging. By its very existence, the book seems to insist on the tweetstorm’s value as a well-told story, and on King’s status as the author of that story, rather than simply its main character.
Here’s why King’s Twitter storytelling worked so well — and why it matters that she keeps on insisting on her own authorship.
The first thing you notice, reading #TheStory, is King’s breathless, confessional voice: “Y’all wanna hear a story?” Reading her tweets, you start to feel like you’re King’s best friend, and she’s teasing you about the wild weekend she just had. Everything feels intimate and close, which means the energy of what she’s describing — sex trafficking, kidnap, a gunfight — acquires an intense urgency. You’re right there with her.
At the same time, King appeared to know she was tweeting for the world, and she kept her story accessible to outsiders. She would frequently pause to translate her dialogue. When one character says, “He was taking care of me,” in the next tweet, King wrote, “‘Taking care of me’ in stripper language means that was her pimp.” She was willing to hold her audience’s hand a little.
What really drove the story forward, though, was how carefully King was writing for her medium. In 2015, each Tweet was only 140 characters long, so King was operating with a certain amount of enforced concision. She used that restraint to create an urgent, breakneck pace, hurtling through one shocking event after another: A confrontation that ends with a gunshot goes by in just 12 tweets.
And when she broke format to use a whole tweet for an exclamation (“I WAS LIKE YOOOOOOOOOO”), the moment landed like punctuation. You knew it was important if she was using that many of her precious 140 characters on it.
But #TheStory isn’t just nonstop thrills. It’s fundamentally an outsider story, the story of a 19-year-old girl who trusted the wrong people and got in too deep, and now she’s watching them as they make one outlandish choice after the next. That distance allows King to maintain a deadpan funniness even as events keep escalating all around her. “so they arguing for hours,” she writes at one point. “I leave & go down to the pool. I mean, i am in Florida!”
King also knew when an event needed juicing to make it funnier or more suspenseful. In 2015, the journalist David Kushner fact-checked #TheStory for Rolling Stone, and he found that a murder King describes didn’t seem to have actually happened; neither did an attempted suicide. But Zola the movie shows us King’s version of events on the suicide attempt and the murder, leaving a little shivering ambiguity around the edges as to whether she’s telling us the truth or not. You can see why director Janicza Bravo made that choice: The story beats are more solid in King’s version.
The hallucinatory glee of #TheStory on Twitter and Zola the movie both depend on King’s authorship, and on her fluid understanding of Twitter as her medium. But ironically, she seems to have been too ahead of her time. Because when Hollywood came calling in 2015, no one, it seemed, could figure out how to license a movie from a series of tweets. It had never been done before.
So while King has a producer credit on the film, Zola is technically based on that Rolling Stone article — a move at which King takes issue.
“I would see certain interviews or I would hear shit on the radio, and it’d be like, ‘The movie Zola, based off of an article written by David Kushner,’” she told New York magazine in June. “It’s not based off of a fucking Rolling Stone article. Stop saying that shit.”
King isn’t wrong, really. Whenever Zola the movie is given the choice to depict either Kushner’s reporting or King’s storytelling, more often than not, it tends to defer to King.
Moreover, Zola the movie has centered Zola the person as the author of its tale to an unusual degree. The film itself references King’s original series of tweets frequently. Every time a character says a line of dialogue drawn from King’s Twitter feed, you hear the whistle of a newly posted tweet, and Taylour Paige as Zola narrates the film with quotes from #TheStory.
In the weeks before Zola’s release, on top of publishing King’s tweetstorm as a book, A24 gave King, as Allison P. Davis put it in New York magazine, “perks usually reserved for a film’s stars”: a car, a dedicated handler, a profile in a major magazine. King has been at the center of the publicity narrative for this movie, not as the person it happened to but as the author of the tale.
“There is a community of people who feel this deep relationship to it,” Jeremy O. Harris told Highsnobiety in June of the tweetstorm. “Because it is an epic poem, right? The Internet called it ‘The Thotyssey’ for a reason. They related to her as Homer in the very first iteration of what this was. And that, I think, points to epic storytelling as something we needed and wanted again.”
Through these adaptation choices and its publicity narrative, Zola acknowledges itself not just as an account of a terrible thing that happened to King, but as an adaptation of a story King authored. That she published it on Twitter in an atypical format does not detract from its legitimacy. She is not just the main character or the narrator; she is the author, the storyteller. She shaped what we’re seeing.
So Zola the movie is not just an account of a trauma. It’s an account of the way one woman shaped her trauma into a story that caught the attention of the whole world.