Movies

How Much of Zola Is True to the Epic Twitter Thread That Inspired It?

What’s fact, fiction, and even fiction-er in this tale of sex and violence in Tampa.

Aziah “Zola” Wells King and Taylour Paige in Zola.
Aziah “Zola” Wells King and Taylour Paige in Zola. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images and A24.

There has never been a movie quite like Zola: an adaptation of not just a true(-ish) story, but one told over a series of nearly 150 tweets. In October 2015, Aziah “Zola” Wells King recounted a trip she took to Tampa with a woman she barely knew, the woman’s erratic boyfriend, and a mysterious, trigger-happy man who turns out to be the woman’s vicious pimp. The tweets became known as #TheStory, and the viral success of Wells King’s tale has been credited for popularizing Twitter threads.

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The new movie attempts to adapt all of Wells King’s casual, slangy tweets into a cogent narrative without relying on aesthetic media tropes. There aren’t any screenshots or chat bubbles or animated “likes” popping up on screen; Zola is about #TheStory, not #ThePlatform. But in translating 140 characters (multiplied by 148 tweets) into an 85-minute film, co-screenwriters Janicza Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris made a few changes—just as the real-life Zola herself did to her own tale, it turns out.

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Below, we’ve collected the biggest differences between the infamous Zola thread and the newly released Zola movie. We’ve also broken down how both tellings deviate from the true version of the story that eked out after the thread went viral.

Zola

In the film, as in the thread, Zola (Taylour Paige) is working as a waitress at Hooters, a job she took while on a break from her gig as a pole dancer. One of her customers is another young woman—Zola often calls her “this white bitch”—who invites Zola on a trip to Tampa, Florida, to make some money at their high-paying clubs. Zola follows along as “this white bitch”—aka Jessica in the thread but called Stefani (Riley Keough) in the film—gets in deeper trouble with her pimp and boyfriend (Jarrett in the thread and Derrek in the film; he’s played by Nicholas Braun), both of whom were there for the trip.

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What happens to Zola on this trip, however, is where the movie deviates from the thread. As much as she wants to disentangle herself from the group, Zola doesn’t manage to, culminating in a tense and disturbing scene in a hotel room where both Zola and Stefani are supposed to do some sex work. In the film, the pimp called X (played by Colman Domingo and known in the thread as Z) tries to distract an angry competitor posing as a customer from kidnapping Stefani by baiting him with Zola. Zola stands rigidly as the man kisses her and gropes her, all at the urging of X. Somehow, the plan works, and Jessica is rescued … after X shoots the other pimp in the face. The gang high tails it out of the hotel, Zola in shocked but complicit silence.

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But the actual Zola was never in that hotel room. As she tells it, she largely kept away from any of the sex work herself, creating a Backpage profile for Jessica but screaming “HELL NO!!” at the immediate sign of any danger, as she describes in her tweet. According to the thread, when Jessica was pulled into the hotel room by not just a rival pimp but another guy, too, Zola stayed behind in the hallway for safety before running away. In Zola’s telling, Jarrett follows, and soon so does Z, who is now carrying an unconscious Jessica he saved from the room.

This means that Zola never actually saw Z shoot the man in the face, per the thread, although she trusts that he’s telling the truth about what happened, and she does say she heard the gun go off. She says that she also refused to stay with the crew after that, instead demanding that Z take her to the airport and never contact her ever again. Zola and Jessica’s “friendship” is over—Zola’s certainly not driving all the way back to Detroit with that girl, as they do at the end of the film.

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It’s worth noting that the veracity of Zola’s account has been disputed by the other major players involved—more on that in a bit. These days, Zola has two daughters and lives with her family in suburban Atlanta. She’s active on Instagram and OnlyFans and, according to a lengthy pre-film release Vulture profile, is ready to enjoy her rekindled spotlight.

Stefani/Jessica

Riley Keough in rose-tinted heart-shaped sunglasses.
Riley Keough as Stefani in Zola. A24
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The movie makes a lot of alterations to the character known as Jessica in the original thread, including the obvious change of her and her boyfriend’s names. (He’s Jarrett in the thread, Derrek in the movie). In the movie, Stefani is eager to please her pimp and fed up with her boyfriend. She doesn’t know much about how to handle her sex work on her own, which is why she’s making barely any money from it. (In the movie, she makes $150 from sleeping with a guy; in the thread, it’s $100.) Stefani convinces herself that Zola is a true friend for sticking by her during this trip and helping her earn some real cash for putting out, all while fighting with Derrek constantly and telling X that he owns her heart.

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The movie ends with all four people driving back to Detroit together, likely never to talk again of their wild weekend. But Zola’s thread ends with her flying back to Detroit with a rattled Jarrett, leaving Z and Jessica behind to continue their work in Tampa and beyond. Then, per the thread: “I get a collect call 4 days later from a jail in LAS VEGAS! It’s JESSICA!” Both Jessica and Z were arrested for sex trafficking, according to the thread’s version of events, while Z was also supposedly “wanted for kidnapping 15 underage girls and is linked to 6 murders including [in Florida].” Zola refused to have any part in bailing Jessica out, she says, and later found out that Jessica claimed to be the victim in all of this and ends up freed from jail and back home to Detroit.

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It may not be surprising to hear that Jessica denies the majority of Zola’s story, speaking out in a long Reddit thread shortly after the tweets went viral. (Jessica’s version of events, in which Zola is actually the one who was out there doing sex work while she only fucks with Jesus, is presented as a hilarious, monologuing tangent by Stefani in the film.) But Jessica did confirm that her pimp Z ended up in jail, while she painted herself as simply an innocent woman who fell prey to his ill-intentioned charms. Nowadays, Jessica takes care of her young daughter and speaks out against sex trafficking.

X/Z

Colman Domingo wearing a pink suit and holding a sparkling water bottle.
Colman Domingo as X in Zola. A24
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Both the film and the thread use a single letter to denote the pimp, who is a mysterious Nigerian man whose accent only comes out when he’s angry. In real life, X/Z is Akporode “Rudy” Uwedjojevwe. Rudy was reportedly introduced to Zola as Jarrett and Jessica’s roommate—a connection he does maintain in the film—but his past with Jessica goes far beyond that. Jessica says that, in real life, she met Rudy at a club, where he comforted her after she had been raped by a client. They became close friends and, eventually, co-workers; that is to say, he became her protective pimp.

Other details across the thread and the film remain fairly consistent, except for the part where Jessica and Z have sex in front of Zola, which doesn’t happen in the movie. Nor does Zola show a picture of Jessica and Z having sex to Jarrett to prove to him that his girlfriend is unfaithful, as she does in the thread. But Z’s wealthy, stoic white fiancée, the hotels of wildly varying quality that he puts them up in: Those all appear in both tellings of the story.

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The wild claim that X shot a rival pimp in the face, meanwhile? False. In the film, we see it happen in front of Zola, Derrek, and Stefani; in Zola’s thread, Zola only hears the gun go off. But Jarrett told Rolling Stone no one ever got shot, a detail corroborated by local authorities. Nevertheless, Jessica’s pimp did go to jail: Las Vegas police apprehended Rudy Uwedjojevwe when he was there with Jessica, and he ultimately pleaded guilty to charges of sex trafficking and coercion. He is currently serving a 16-year prison term, although he’s now up for parole.

Derrek/Jarrett

Nicholas Braun in a backward baseball cap and striped polo with a thin chin-strap beard.
Nicholas Braun as Derrek in Zola. A24
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The most dramatic change between the film, thread, and reality is what happens to the poor, put-upon boyfriend. Both Derrek in the film and Jarrett in the thread suffer from mental health issues that exacerbate his relationship issues. It’s how he ultimately reacts to the mess that is Jessica’s averted kidnapping attempt that marks fiction from fact. In the movie, Derrek yells at Stefani that he’s going to kill himself when she refuses to stop working with X. He runs toward the balcony and jumps off, landing on the pavement beside the pool below them. The film then cuts to Derrek holding his bleeding head and sobbing hysterically in the car as the foursome drives home.

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In the thread, this basically happens too. The main difference is that Jarrett and Jessica get into a fight over her refusal to go back home to Detroit with him, with her instead choosing to stay longer in Tampa to make more money. He is so distraught over this, according to Zola, that he then jumps off the balcony. “I screamed SO LOUD my heart stopped,” reads her tweet about the harrowing moment. Z takes Jarrett and puts him in the car with Zola, who is heading to the airport. It should almost go without saying that his relationship with Jessica is over; Zola added some photos of Jarrett with his “new boo” later on in the thread, looking much happier.

But in actuality, no one jumped off anyone’s balcony. All the players involved—Zola, Jessica, and Jarrett—later said that he only threatened to jump, but he didn’t go through with it. Instead, Jarrett chose to leave with Zola for the airport of his own volition. Phew!

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