Jeremy O. Harris: “‘Zola’ Is a Queer Story”

"This is the story about someone's ability to manipulate because of a mutual attraction," says the out playwright and screenwriter.

Zola, the latest larger-than-life feature from beloved indie film house A24, is many things: an intimate look at a “hoe trip” gone horribly wrong; a testament to the power of social media as a storytelling medium. For writer Jeremy O. Harris, who co-authored the screenplay with Zola’s director, Janicza Bravo, the film is also a story about queer love.

“We were very adamant about that,” he tells Logo over the phone. “It’s a love that I think a lot of women — both bi, pan, lesbian, and also straight — have with other women they meet, right? The sort of complicated, I don’t know what this is, but I know I want to be you and be inside you and be with you completely because you’re both sister lover, mother, cousin.”

Zola is based on a series of viral, autobiographical tweets from 2015 by Aziah “Zola” King, a Black pansexual woman who compellingly recounted the whirlwind tale of how she and her “white bitch” ex-friend fell out after road-tripping to Florida to dance at strip clubs together. (If you somehow missed it, please treat yourself to King’s rollicking, conversational storytelling.) Nicknamed “The Thotessy,” King’s debaucherous, 148-tweet-long stripper saga captivated readers around the world and sparked a Rolling Stone investigation into the veracity of her story by writer Daniel Kushner. That article became the genesis of Zola, which ultimately ended up in the hands of Bravo and Harris. And after a year’s delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the film is finally here.

Harris is a playwright by trade, and prior to working on Zola, he’d never actually completed a screenplay. The 32-year-old was tapped for the project before finishing Slave Play, a timely play he wrote as an MFA student at the Yale School of Drama that nabbed a record-breaking 12 Tony nominations after its Broadway debut in 2019. He remembers hearing from Bravo, who was already his friend, about the opportunity to collaborate on the screenplay for Zola in 2017. “’The only way you can write it, though, is if you finish all your homework for school,'” he recalls her saying. “So I did. I finished it.” He learned on the job, grateful for Bravo’s guidance and meticulousness as a “young writer who is a Gemini, and who [writes] intuitively.”

It was a hectic time in Harris’s life, but the out playwright couldn’t say no to Bravo, or to King. “Aziah has such a unique and phenomenal voice,” he gushes. “It’s so refreshing, and it reminds me of that work that I loved from the ’90s, where writers are speaking in their own idiolects. [Aziah] was in the same lineage of all of these queer weirdos from the ’90s, or even more so from the ’70s. And these people right next to the literary canon, but not necessarily brought into it, have always been my biggest influences.”

The creative team’s respect for King and her lived experience is apparent in every aspect of Zola. King served as an executive producer on the film and confided in Bravo about what it was like to actually experience the terrifyingly wild ride that was The Thotessy. Direct quotes from her original tweets are woven into the script, with her onscreen alter-ego (played by Taylour Paige) breaking the fourth wall to complain about her “white bitch” partner-in-hoeing, Stefani (Riley Keough), via well-timed narration.

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
From left: Harris, Bravo, King, and actress Riley Keough, who plays Stefani.

As Zola unfolds, we’re meant to become increasingly suspicious of Stefani. Between her braided hair and frequent use of Black slang, Stefani embodies cringe-y, blatantly racist cultural appropriation, a subtle but consistent red flag to both Zola and viewers. “I think [that characterization] came from us not judging the character necessarily while also knowing that her actions were demonic,” Harris says. He likens Stefani to the various “no-no gays” he’s encountered as a queer Black man at parties or clubs. These white queer people appropriate Black queer culture with reckless abandon, never stopping to consider “how violent this is to the histories of Black femininity, Black queerness.”

Perhaps most importantly, Zola never obfuscates the disturbing reality of what actually happened to King in The Thotessy: At just 19 years old, she was almost sex trafficked after being deceived by Stefani’s real-life counterpart, someone whom King loved and trusted implicitly. “This is the story about someone’s ability to manipulate because of a mutual attraction that is never articulated, except for sound cues,” Harris says. For every lush visual and dreamy instrumental track, Zola contains an action or a line of dialogue so jarring, you never truly feel comfortable.

According to Harris, the version of King’s Twitter thread we know was actually her third attempt at telling her story on social media. Her previous accounts were more cut-and-dry tales cautioning against sex trafficking. “The third version is like, ’You guys, let me tell you the funniest story ever,'” he explains. “And it also gives a PSA about sex trafficking. But it’s kept inside of so much fun and ’let me grab you’ that you almost forget until a month later, or day later.”

It’s a complicated, hard-to-nail duality, but like any good Gemini, Harris embraced that complexity: “The story is simply about, ’Let me tell you about how the person I fell in love with, in one instance, used that love to cause harm, and why I will never fuck with them ever again,’ and just to use that trauma and make it funny instead of making it more gross.” The result? A compelling addition to the queer cinema canon that is unlike anything else.

Zola is in theaters now.

Main image: Jeremy O. Harris at the Zola premiere in Los Angeles.

Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Probably drinking iced coffee or getting tattooed.