Janicza Bravo on ‘Zola’ and Blaxploitation Cinema
Welcome to Freeze Frame, a column in which Hollywood’s established and emerging filmmakers discuss a shot or scene from a movie that has stuck with them throughout their lives, and impacted the way they view cinema.
“Y’all wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch here fell out?” will go down as the opening line of the century. Zola, the film adapted for the screen by Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris, and based on the iconic Twitter thread delivered to the world in October 2015 by A’Ziah King, starts out with the promise of a “kind of long but full of suspense” tale about how Zola, our protagonist, became ensnared in a “hoe trip” to Florida with Stefani (“Jessica” in the thread), Stefani’s boyfriend Derrek, and a pimp whose name remains unknown, so we’ll just call him “X.”
Bravo, who directed the film, had her sights set on adapting the 148-tweet long thread the moment she laid eyes on it nearly six years ago. While she and Harris teamed up to co-write the script for the film produced by powerhouse indie distributor A24, they cast Taylour Paige and Riley Keough in the lead roles, with Nicholas Braun and Colman Domingo as Derrek and X. After premiering at Sundance in January 2020, the film will finally be released this month.
The director’s absurdist mode of storytelling and unique filmmaking style—which includes on-screen pop-ups from emojis, the whoosh sound of a newly sent Tweet, and an exploration of the abject—can really be felt as the 16mm camera captures the increasingly messy journey of Zola, who goes to Florida to strip for some cash, only to be nearly sold into X’s sex trafficking business. Here, Bravo discusses the cinematic references she makes in Zola, puts the film in conversation with a classic Pam Grier movie from the ‘70s, and cites her biggest directorial influences.
You’ve made headlines this summer for directing and co-writing Zola, and previously for Lemon, your controversial feature directorial debut in 2017, but let’s start at the beginning of your career. I’ve heard that you started in wardrobe and costume design, is that true?
I wanted to be an actress. That was my first love and pursuit in the film and theater space. I went to NYU to be an actress and I got into this studio called Playwrights Horizons, where the focus is not only acting, but also directing and design. No one in my family at the time had done creative work; my parents were both tailors, so they’d done that kind of creative work, but not in the performance space. I never aspired to be a director because I didn’t know what that entailed as a job. And I couldn’t cite a director that looked like me. I think consciously or unconsciously, when we see people who look like us in positions of power, then we can see ourselves there, too. I needed to have a sense of that.
What made you pivot to directing?
At NYU, I found that I was a director who had strong feelings about design. When I got out of NYU, many of my classmates graduated and worked the job they said they were going to work while we were in school. I’m not a rich kid, a real tragedy for me. [Laughs.] I was like, I guess I’m a waitress or a person who works at a clothing store. But Jon Watts, the director of the Spider-Man movies, was the first director to give me a job as a stylist. I didn’t even know that was a job because as far as I was concerned, beyond a period film, I thought people were dressing themselves. If the movie didn’t have heightened style like Clueless, then people were just buying stuff at the store. Jon was like, “I like how you’re dressed. Do you want to style this?” And I was like, “Am I shopping for work? Oh my god!” I liked it. For the audience, the first gateway into the work is through performance and the actor’s body, and so their clothing, to me, matters so much, because it tells the story of where they’re going or coming from. That was my first real foray into the film, television, music video, commercial space.
It makes sense to hear you say that because all of your projects I’ve seen—both feature length and short films—have a clear sense of style. When people see Zola, they’re going to remember Riley Keough wearing a snakeskin outfit, Nicholas Braun wearing Crocs, Taylour Paige holding the Louis Vuitton duffle bag.
Costume design is one of my first loves. If there’s anything I really feel confident about in the movie, it’s what those actors are wearing.
Who do you make films for? Who is your audience?
I’m still trying to answer that question. But I can tell you what my answer is for Zola. I thought about a movie I would have wanted to see as a 16- or 17-year-old girl. I thought, what is the movie that I, at 17, would want to sneak into? What is the movie that the oldest friend is going to buy the 10 tickets for and we’ll all get into the theater and pretend to go see whatever PG-rated movie is playing at the same time?
I have had to exorcise this movie from my body, and that has not been with so much consideration for who is on the other side. The directors I am most attracted to, or whose work most inspired me—Fassbinder, Cassavetes, Fosse—I don’t know that those men saw “Janicza” in mind when they were making work. There’s overlap in why those directors really speak to me, they’re very theatrical, emotional, and high stakes in sometimes very low-stakes settings. I’m citing them because I saw myself in their work, and I haven’t thought of who is on the other side so much because I imagine there is more than one someone on the other side who is going to see my work and feel themselves in it. If they look like me, that’s great, and if they don’t look like me, that’s also great.
What was your first interaction with the source material, the 148-tweet thread, upon which the film is based?
A group of Black girlfriends in a text thread sent it to me. On the day the Twitter thread came out in 2015, leading up to this moment, there were a multitude—I’m not going to go through them—of unarmed Black deaths at the hands of police officers. The thread started as group therapy of sorts, from a place of feeling isolated, of grievances, a place of community.
How did it feel, then, to read this long, twisting tale about a Black woman who narrowly escapes sex trafficking, written from the perspective of that very woman?
In October 2015, I was working on a short film, Woman in Deep, with Alison Pill. There were over 100 text messages on my phone and I was busy, so at the bottom of the day, I’m in bed with my partner at the time, actor Brett Gelman, and I’m reading the thread, giddy, laughing so hard, coming undone. He’s asking what’s going on and I’m shooing him away, saying I have to get through the end. Before I’m done with the story, maybe three quarters of the way through it, I have a lightbulb moment. I just go, “Oh, I have to make this.” That was really it. I forwarded it at like 3 or 4 in the morning to my agent and manager, and I asked how Twitter IP works. Seventy-two hours later, they wrote there was a Rolling Stone article and five other people are after it with cash money and I’m poor, but I can offer talent and tenacity. But you can’t pay the rent with tenacity.
For this column, you chose to discuss the final scene from Coffy, Jack Hill’s 1973 Blaxploitation film that put Pam Grier on the map. In this scene, Coffy has a final showdown with her boyfriend—a crooked politician—after having just blasted to smithereens the heroin dealer who got her baby sister hooked on drugs. For anyone watching this movie, it should immediately make sense why you would want to put this film in conversation with Zola—there’s a grittiness, a rawness, an over-the-top element that both films have, but there’s also a very interesting analysis of the relationship between Black and white women presented to the viewer.
There you go! And also comfortability around sex and bodies.
It’s pretty explicit for the time. What was it like the first time you saw it?
I saw it when I was really young. I’m an only child, and I watched movies my parents wanted to watch all the time. Sometimes, we saw a cartoon in the movie theater and no one cared for that except me, so I saw a lot of really wild movies very young. I debated between this scene in Coffy and a scene in Showgirls, because I also saw Showgirls young. A year after it came out, I had spinal surgery and was with my father, and he knew I loved Elizabeth Berkley so he got the DVD for me while I was recovering. We both watched it together and it was really so not a great experience for either of us, but I thought it was so funny, because my dad’s gaze was down for so much of it and we shouldn’t have been watching it together.
Why did you choose to discuss Coffy instead?
When I first started my own dramaturgical research on Zola there were two questions that I asked myself and my collaborators: can you cite any movies off the top of your head where the Black woman is a superhero, she has agency? The second question was, can you cite movies where you’ve seen Black and white women? That was always a fun question to ask because people would be like, “Can I come back to you?” Clueless would be cited a lot, actually. But there wasn’t a second and third example from people. The first movie that often came to mind for the first question was Jackie Brown. As I built the world of Zola, watching movies starring Pam Grier seemed to be such a perfect centerpiece because there was a good deal of agency and also comfortability around sex and body, and the way that she moved through the world. I wanted to be inside of that. The tonality of those films are different, but Pam Grier as a superhero was emblematic for the making of Zola.
I can see the connection you’ve drawn between the very strained Black woman-white woman dynamic in Coffy and the relationship between Zola and Stefani in Zola. There are subtle cultural differences you’ve captured, too, like the bathroom scene in which Zola is hovering over the toilet while Stefani messily uses the facilities. Whose idea was it to write that scene into the script?
In the first rough cut of the movie, it was a scene that felt superfluous, but I fought for it. We tested the scene at a small screening, and it got a big reaction. If you were to talk to Jeremy O. Harris, my co-writer, he would tell you that’s one of the handful of ideas I pitched in the beginning and his first response was, “I don’t get it, but it obviously means something to you.”
Going to NYU was the first time I had been away from home and independent, and I remember so clearly going into these bars in the East Village and going to the bathroom with girlfriends, and hovering over the toilet like my mother taught me, and my girlfriends who were oftentimes white just sitting on the toilet, and it being really anthropologically fascinating to me. I thought, Wow, we were raised so differently. I wanted to engage with this memory, and it’s existing in stereotype—I’m not saying all white women sit on the toilet and all Black women hover—but I think it speaks to rearing and cultural differences. Throughout the movie there are pieces woven in that are just for the girls, just for Black people, whatever—little winks to certain parts of the audience.
Why was this final scene of Coffy—in which our protagonist takes a shotgun and blasts her lover in the groin—so impactful to you?
It really sticks for me because at this point in the movie, so much has happened to her. She’s come close to death so many times, she shouldn’t be here. But she is because, ultimately, she is kind of a superhero. She’s more than human. This scene is so radical because the Coffy you meet at the beginning of the movie is a woman who’s really good at doing the math. The Zola you meet at the beginning of the movie is a woman who’s very good at doing the math. She tends to be one step ahead. In Zola, Zola meets Stefani, who is a little bit better at the math than she is, who seduces her, and she’s lured into this trip. In Coffy, her lover, her partner is someone who has totally seduced her and is a couple steps ahead. He has so much power over her that he is able to convince her of why he wronged her. You see her guard go down, you see how he works her, and you feel that vulnerability.
She is not a superhero, actually. She is a woman full of agency, a woman who is also very vulnerable. He almost gets her, but then it’s revealed that he’s got another woman upstairs and she’s like, I gotta shoot him in the dick. Classic. That’s another link to Zola, too—it’s obviously funny, and it’s speaking to Blaxploitation cinema, which is kind of like the ‘70s “Marvel universe” of sorts. That scene really encapsulated a lot of the emotional tenor of Zola. In some of the more curious and radical scenes in Zola, there aren’t just one or two feelings, there are five or six—and they’re also funny, and uncomfortable, and distressing.