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Boobs, blackface and pink bombshells: The story behind Twitter-to-film stripper saga, Zola

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“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out?” The first line of A’Ziah-Monae King’s Twitter thread will surely go down in history as one of the most memorable openings to any caper, like a millennial answer to “Call me Ishmael” and “Rosebud”. But her follow-up promise – “It’s kinda long but full of suspense” – will follow suit as the understatement of the century. Six years ago, King created what became known as #TheStory, a mind-blowing stripper saga recounted in a whopping 148 posts. The thread went viral, was praised by the likes of Solange Knowles and Missy Elliot, and was so full of dramatic twists and turns that it’s now been made into a feature length film.

You’ll see why: in March 2015, King – who uses the name Zola – was 19 and working at a Hooters in Detroit when she met Jessica, a white woman whose image she shared with that first tweet. The two bonded over internet culture, dancing (they were both strippers) and the simple joy of being young and hot. They vibed, King would later write, over their shared “hoeism”.

The pair exchanged numbers and the very next day, Jessica persuaded King to join a roadtrip with her roommate and boyfriend to Tampa, Florida. King agreed but later realised that she’d made a terrible and potentially fatal mistake. Jessica’s roommate isn’t her roommate; he is her pimp and now he wants both girls to trade sex for money. It also turns out that Jessica was in on it the whole time. As the weekend wears on, King finds herself in increasingly exploitative, dangerous and absurd situations. An abduction and a shooting are only the tip of a terrifying iceberg.

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Months later, King shared her story – a tale of Homeric proportions – on the social networking site. It attracted awe not only for the wild ride that it depicted but the self-aware, hilarious voice behind it. Oscar-winning director Ava DuVernay praised King: “Drama, humour, action, suspense, character development. She can write!” Almost immediately, people began casting their dream team for the inevitable film adaptation.

The filmmaker Janicza Bravo read #TheStory the day it dropped on Twitter. “I’m in a group chat with three Black girlfriends and they shared it on our thread,” Bravo recalls. We’re sitting in a sectioned-off area at the Picturehouse cinema in Piccadilly where early screenings of Zola, the adaptation of #TheStory that Bravo directed, are finally being shown to press over a year after it premiered at Sundance. “I had never heard a voice like this –  I was turned on by this voice. I wanted to be this voice. I wanted to embody this voice.” It’s a voice that Rolling Stone likened to “Spring Breakers meets Pulp Fiction, as told by Nicki Minaj”. As soon as Bravo read it, she “knew” she had to bring it to the screen.

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Bravo forwarded the thread to her agent at four in the morning and began looking into how Twitter IP works. This would be the first Twitter-to-film adaptation ever. In a matter of days though, Rolling Stone published a report revealing that King already had five bidders. Bidders who were much richer and better known than Bravo, who only had some TV writing credits (Dear White People, Atlanta), one film (Lemon, co-created with her then-husband Brett Gelman, which received some awful reviews) and a couple of shorts (including the critically acclaimed Gregory Go Boom starring Michael Cera and Gelman again) to her name. As Bravo pithily puts it today: “They were like, ‘Who the f*** is Janicza?’” But via a circuitous route that seems to confirm her serendipitous worldview, she became the director and co-writer of the most-talked-about moment in internet history – and subsequently one of the year’s most captivating films.

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The film stars Taylour Paige as Zola (aka King), Riley Keough as Stefani (aka Jessica) and Colman Domingo as the pimp (christened “Z” in the thread and “X” in the film). Succession’s Nicholas Braun lends his reedy Cousin Greg act to the role of Stefani’s doting boyfriend. It is a sumptuously shot fantasia of crime and comedy, but above all else, it’s a film that strives to honour its original storyteller. King became a close collaborator on the project and is listed as an executive producer. Her name appears in the opening credits. The loosey-goosey standards of “based on a true story” don’t apply here.

Part of staying true to King’s voice is not forgetting where it originated. “Early on, there was a dismissive attitude [in the film industry] about where the story came from, like the fact that it was born on Twitter already made it less than,” explains Bravo. Rather than obscure it though, the film’s frequent dings, vibrations and whistles are unapologetic signage of where Zola unfurls: on a phone. “I felt like A’Ziah’s story mattered,” Bravo continues. “The fact she told it mattered and the way that she told it mattered – and it was really f***ing exciting.”

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(A24)

Bravo, who directed as well as co-wrote the script with Tony-nominated writer and close friend Jeremy O Harris, pulled verbatim lines from the original thread. King’s most memorable quotes – like “pussy is worth thousands” – are spoken aloud by the movie’s own Zola. “I wanted to remind the audience of the source material,” says Bravo. “When we’re watching an adaptation of Shakespeare’s work, we know it’s Shakespeare the whole time. And A’ziah is Shakespeare as far as I’m concerned. She’s one of the great writers of our time.”

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It is easy to read the thread, which is gut-bustingly funny and enviably self-assured, and forget the terror at its heart. This is a story about a loss of agency. King is a young Black woman manipulated by a young white woman. She is held against her will and forced to endure life-threatening situations. “When I first read the thread, I understood the pleasure that people got out of reading it,” says Bravo. “But it’s also really scary. Behind a lot of this writing is a traumatised person.”

King had gone on the road trip in March 2015. She posted the viral Twitter thread on 27 October that same year. In the months between, King had written two earlier versions of the same story. The first she shared on Tumblr only weeks after the experience. Bravo – who read it as part of the research for Zola – describes that initial iteration as “deeply unfunny” and “really emotional”. “A’Ziah wrote it through tears, and then she deleted it,” she says. Months later, King mapped out a second draft that cleaves slightly closer to the version with which we are familiar. “Then by the time she is writing the third one, which is five or six months after the experience, A’Ziah has a good deal of distance from it,” recalls Bravo. King told The New York Times that by that third revision, she was “ready to be entertained” by her story.

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As much as King’s thread – and Bravo’s film by extension – is about trauma experienced, it is also crucially about trauma processed. “When A’Ziah was writing,” the director says, “she was recontextualising the thing that happened to her and she’s also talking to it – trying to explain to herself how she got into this position and trying not to punish herself for the choices she made.

“So when it came to writing the film,” Bravo continues, “I felt the character needed to be in two places at once. The ‘Zola’ that Taylour is portraying is less the girl [in-the-moment] and more the writer who has come out the other side. It’s like the Zola who lived the experience is going backwards and looking at herself inside of the situation.” She laughs. “I know that sounds f***ing nuts.”

Not after watching the film, it doesn’t. As the chaos swirls around Paige’s character at menacing speeds, the camera often falls to the stillness of her face, self-aware and glowering as she absorbs the people around her. We’re reminded that the Zola we’re seeing on-screen is continuously processing and reframing the experience in real-time.

Staying true to King’s story doesn’t always translate to being factual right down to the details. While Bravo pursues a documentary-like portrayal of the harrowing events, Zola has an irresistible surrealist groove. Stylistically, the film relishes in its visuals. Bravo partakes in a Wes Anderson-style penchant for symmetrical framing, while David Lynchian alchemy of the mundane and bizarre can be seen in the film’s ingenious use of Mica Levi’s original score. (When pitching herself for the project, Bravo described her version of Zola as “Blue Velvet meets ‘Bodak Yellow’”).

Bravo took a similarly surrealist approach to Jessica’s character. Stefani (as she’s renamed in the film) is dressed in impossibly expensive clothes: head-to-toe Dior, carrying a Chanel bag in one hand and a Fendi purse in the other. In the film, they drive a Mercedes Benz G-Wagon. The purpose of this elevation, this added boujieness, Bravo tells me, is to portray the world as it would’ve looked to King – who is now in her mid-twenties – as a teenager.

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“I think our Zola on-screen is trying to justify why this happened to her,” says Bravo. “And I think part of the way she does that is by portraying the events as if they’ve been dipped in glitz, dunked in glitter. It had to be super glamorous so that we understand why she was duped.”

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Race plays a larger role in Zola than it does in King’s original thread. As Paige said at Sundance last year, Keough’s “in blackface for the whole movie”. Her character Stefani appropriates Black culture to the hilt, styling her blonde baby hairs and parroting the word “sis” back to Zola incessantly. Then there’s the “blaccent”. Some of it was already written in the script, says Bravo, “how the words end with an ‘a’ or the fact they aren’t conjugated all the way. It’s in there a little bit without her being like a ‘wigger’”. But Bravo wanted to go bigger. “I brought it up in our first meeting,” she recalls. “And Riley was like, ‘I’m gonna get cancelled.’” Still, she agreed and worked with voice coach Aris Mendoza to get it right: a mix of Bhad Bhabie and Iggy Azalea. The portrayal got the greenlight from King, who confirmed that it felt true to the real thing. Keough’s bombastic performance, though, also comes back to the issue of believing in and sympathising with Paige’s character and in turn King herself. That blatant appropriation, explains Bravo, is “Riley’s handicap of sorts”. The aim is that she and Taylour are “starting at the same line” in terms of audience trust and preconception, she says.

Following the release of Zola, it feels as though there was no other way for King’s experience to be told. But up until a few years ago, a very different version of #TheStory was underway. In February 2016, James Franco had obtained the rights to produce and direct the film under A24. He brought on two white men – Andrew Neel and Mike Roberts – as writers. The resulting script is described by Bravo as “leading with its dick”. The first few pages included a full nude pole dancing scene. Paige had been approached to audition for the role of Zola in the film’s first iteration, under Franco’s production. She turned it down instantly, having previously said the script felt “really sexist and racist”. She told Dazed that it “wasn’t written with a woman’s voice, and it definitely wasn’t a Black woman’s voice”.

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King, who had said yes to Franco, later told NPR that “they added things in the blank space that I guess they thought would be entertaining in a film, and it started to rub me the wrong way”. In 2017, the project stalled due to scheduling conflicts. In 2018, Franco left the film entirely after five women accused him of sexually inappropriate behaviour. Bravo put herself forward and went through a three-month audition process for the directing gig. In May 2017, she landed it and convinced Paige to sign on to the project with a totally new script.

It seems incredulous that three white men – Franco, Neel and Roberts – would have ever been considered the right choice to tell King’s story but as Bravo reminds me, any affront to their initial appointment is newly felt. “It’s funny because people are saying how mad it is now but back then I don’t think that was the case,” she says. “On Black Twitter, a lot of people were saying Harmony Korine should make the film because he did Spring Breakers and then when James got it, people thought that was exciting because it was within that Harmony universe [Korine and Franco worked together on Spring Breakers]. With distance, I think people can look back and go, ‘That was a bad idea’, but back then it didn’t feel like one because James is very famous. People are attracted to fame. I simply could not compete with James Franco. I had done some shorts and one feature film…” They’ll know ‘who the f***’ Bravo is soon enough: Zola has debuted to rapturous reviews and sets the bar high for internet-to-film adaptations.

King caught lightning-in-a-bottle with her story. That bottle being the surprisingly elastic format of Twitter. For Bravo, the question was how to capture lightning-in-a-bottle in another bottle: film. How do you take the immediacy of Twitter and King’s inimitable voice and put it on screen without losing anything? And on a less commercial level, how do you preserve the human at the centre of it all? Bravo answers the former question precisely by asking the latter. Zola is not solely her film. Under her compassionate direction, it remains King’s story too.

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TWITTER

Elon Musk Says He’ll Pay $11 Billion in Taxes in 2021 But Twitter Wants ‘Proof’

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Elon Musk took to Twitter to clarify once and for all that he will be paying a whopping $11 billion as taxes this year.

If the number of times Elon Musk could count when someone has asked him to pay the full taxes, he would be a very rich..wait, never mind. The Tesla boss is rich beyond any private individual has been in history, reports said.

Musk has increasingly been facing criticism from many politicians and many others who insist he has not been paying taxes as compared to the profits his companies have been making. On Sunday, the SpaceX CEO took to Twitter to share that he will be paying a whopping $11 billion as taxes.

For those wondering, I will pay over $11 billion in taxes this year— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 20, 2021

But some of the questions did not stop. One person tweeted how they needed to see Musk’s tax returns while yet another asked how much percentage was that of his total income.

A few were, however scathing of the government who thought they will add that amount to their pockets rather than using it for some proper development.

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Wow that’s enough to give each person in the world almost $2 million but instead the government will just stick it in their pockets— greg (@greg16676935420) December 20, 2021

Why not $200 billion? Asking for a Senator— litquidity (@litcapital) December 20, 2021

Earlier this week, Democratic US Senator Elizabeth Warren has tweeted to say that Musk should pay taxes and stop “freeloading off everyone else” after Time magazine named him its “person of the year”.

In response, Musk shot four tweets in which he said that the senator reminded him of a friend’s angry mom who yelled at everybody. He tweeted, ““And if you opened your eyes for 2 seconds, you would realize I will pay more taxes than any American in history this year.” “Don’t spend it all at once … oh wait you did already.”

He added further, “You remind me of when I was a kid and my friend’s angry Mom would just randomly yell at everyone for no reason.”

Musk responded by saying that he “will pay more taxes than any American in history this year”. This Twitter exchange left netizens divided as even though many supported Warren and agreed that Musk should pay more taxes, others felt that he was already doing enough.

Musk’s Tesla is worth about $1 trillion. Over the last few weeks, he has sold nearly $14 billion worth of Tesla shares.

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The Tesla boss has been pushing for his colonize Mars agenda for years now, and has made it very clear in some occasions that he would rather spend the money on putting humanity on the red planet, than pay his taxes. “My plan,” the SpaceX founder tweeted about his fortune, “is to use the money to get humanity to Mars and preserve the light of consciousness.”

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Twitter Admits Policy ‘Errors’ After Far-Right Abuse Its New Rules of Posting Pictures

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Twitter’s new picture permission policy was aimed at combating online abuse, but US activists and researchers said Friday that far-right backers have employed it to protect themselves from scrutiny and to harass opponents.

Even the social network admitted the rollout of the rules, which say anyone can ask Twitter to take down images of themselves posted without their consent, was marred by malicious reports and its teams’ own errors.

It was just the kind of trouble anti-racism advocates worried was coming after the policy was announced this week.

Their concerns were quickly validated, with anti-extremism researcher Kristofer Goldsmith tweeting a screenshot of a far-right call-to-action circulating on Telegram: “Due to the new privacy policy at Twitter, things now unexpectedly work more in our favor.”

“Anyone with a Twitter account should be reporting doxxing posts from the following accounts,” the message said, with a list of dozens of Twitter handles.

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Gwen Snyder, an organizer and researcher in Philadelphia, said her account was blocked this week after a report to Twitter about a series of 2019 photos she said showed a local political candidate at a march organized by extreme-right group Proud Boys.

Rather than go through an appeal with Twitter she opted to delete the images and alert others to what was happening.

“Twitter moving to eliminate (my) work from their platform is incredibly dangerous and is going to enable and embolden fascists,” she told AFP.

In announcing the privacy policy on Tuesday, Twitter noted that “sharing personal media, such as images or videos, can potentially violate a person’s privacy, and may lead to emotional or physical harm.”

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But the rules don’t apply to “public figures or individuals when media and accompanying Tweets are shared in the public interest or add value to public discourse.”

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By Friday, Twitter noted the roll out had been rough: “We became aware of a significant amount of coordinated and malicious reports, and unfortunately, our enforcement teams made several errors.”

“We’ve corrected those errors and are undergoing an internal review to make certain that this policy is used as intended,” the firm added.

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Jack Dorsey Post Twitter Is Chasing His Crypto, Fintech Dream

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At a packed Miami conference in June, Jack Dorsey, mused in front of thousands of attendees about where his real passion lay: “If I weren’t at Square or Twitter, I’d be working on Bitcoin.”

On Monday, Dorsey made good on one part of that, announcing he would leave Twitter for the second time, handing the CEO position to a 10-year veteran at the firm. The 45-year-old entrepreneur, who is often described as an enigma with varied interests from meditation to yoga to fashion design, plans to pursue his passion which include focusing on running Square and doing more philanthropic work, according to a source familiar with his plan.

Well before the surprise news, Dorsey had laid the groundwork for his next chapter, seeding both companies with cryptocurrency-related projects.

Underlying Dorsey’s broader vision is the principle of “decentralisation,” or the idea that technology and finance should not be concentrated among a handful of gatekeepers, as it is now, but should, instead, be steered by the hands of the many, either people or entities.

The concept has played out at Square, which has built a division devoted to working on projects and awarding grants with the aim of growing Bitcoin’s popularity globally. Bitcoin price in India stood at Rs. 44.52 lakh as of 12:50pm IST on December 1.

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Dorsey has been a longtime proponent of Bitcoin, and the appeal is that the cryptocurrency will allow for private and secure transactions with the value of Bitcoin unrelated to any government.

The idea has also underpinned new projects at Twitter, where Dorsey tapped a top lieutenant – and now the company’s new CEO Parag Agrawal – to oversee a team that is attempting to construct a decentralised social media protocol, which will allow different social platforms to connect with one another, similar to the way email providers operate.

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The project called Bluesky will aim to allow users control over the types of content they see online, removing the “burden” on companies like Twitter to enforce a global policy to fight abuse or misleading information, Dorsey said in 2019 when he announced Bluesky.

Bitcoin has also figured prominently at both of his companies. Square became one of the first public companies to own Bitcoin assets on its balance sheet, having invested $220 million (roughly Rs. 1,650 crore) in the cryptocurrency.

In August, Square created a new business unit called TBD to focus on Bitcoin. The company is also planning to build a hardware wallet for Bitcoin, a Bitcoin mining system, as well as a decentralised Bitcoin exchange.

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Twitter allows users to tip their favourite content creators with Bitcoin and has been testing integrations with non-fungible tokens (NFTs), a type of digital asset that allows people to collect unique digital art.

Analysts see the transition as a positive signal for Square, the fintech platform he co-founded in 2009. Square’s core Cash App, after a bull run in its share in 2020, has experienced slower growth in the most recent quarter. It is also trying to digest the $29 billion (roughly Rs. 2,17,240 crore) acquisition of Buy Now Pay Later provider Afterpay, its largest acquisition ever.

But these ambitions will not pay off until years from now, analysts cautioned.

“The blockchain platform they’re trying to develop is great but also fraught with technical challenges and difficult to scale for consumers. I think he’ll focus more on Square and crypto will be part of that,” said Christopher Brendler, an analyst at DA Davidson.

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© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Interested in cryptocurrency? We discuss all things crypto with WazirX CEO Nischal Shetty and WeekendInvesting founder Alok Jain on Orbital, the Gadgets 360 podcast. Orbital is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music and wherever you get your podcasts.

Cryptocurrency is an unregulated digital currency, not a legal tender and subject to market risks. The information provided in the article is not intended to be and does not constitute financial advice, trading advice or any other advice or recommendation of any sort offered or endorsed by NDTV. NDTV shall not be responsible for any loss arising from any investment based on any perceived recommendation, forecast or any other information contained in the article.

(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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