No sophomore slump for writer/director Janicza Bravo, who follows up her offbeat debut feature, “Lemon,” with a sensational cinematic rendering of A’Ziah “Zola” King’s now-iconic late 2015 Twitter thread detailing a wacky tale about how two Detroit exotic dancers make an impromptu “hoeism” trip to Florida that goes horribly awry. “It’s kind of long but full of suspense,” Zola cautioned her audience. And so began an odyssey, replete with segues into prostitution, murder, and attempted suicide, which quickly went viral, en route to becoming tragicomic fodder well-suited for a filmmaker who describes her lens as “a little bit unusual.”
Critical reaction to the curio that was “Lemon,” which world premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, was a mixed bag. On the other hand, “Zola” has overwhelmingly been praised by critics, and is one of the most anticipated films of the year — especially as potential catharsis for audiences entering an uncertain post-pandemic future, in need of a hearty laugh derived from an adaptation of Twitter folktale. On the popular image hosting service Imgur alone, a screen-capture of the entire thread (since deleted) has been viewed almost 7 million times. A film adaptation seemed inevitable, and Bravo immediately knew it was hers to direct.
“I sent it to my reps and said, ‘I want this Twitter IP. How does that work? Let’s figure this out,'” she said. “Because Twitter IP, I still don’t know what that path looks like, and it certainly wasn’t clear then. The Rolling Stone article came out, and by the time I showed up to the table, there were already five bidders. I didn’t have the money. What I had was the knowledge that I could direct this, but you can’t pay rent with that. So it wasn’t mine to have then.”
The directing job became available a couple of years later, which Bravo doggedly pursued. With “Lemon” in her back pocket, she officially came on board in the summer of 2018, after multiple months “auditioning” for the project’s producers.
The lead actors were quickly assembled into a solid ensemble cast (Riley Keough, Taylour Paige, Colman Domingo and Nicholas Braun), owing to Bravo’s appreciation for performance above all else, as well as a script that “really spoke for itself,” she said. Principal production began in the fall of the same year, and wrapped six weeks later.
The resulting “Zola” was co-scripted by Bravo and wunderkind playwright Jeremy O. Harris, whose critically-acclaimed, adversarial take on race, sex, power relations, and trauma in “Slave Play” likely made him an irresistible choice for a film that interrogated similar themes.
“Black Twitter said it was ‘The Thotyssey’,” said Harris, who earned an MFA in playwriting from Yale Drama School. “And that compared A’ziah to Homer. Like, to our earliest epic poem. And so, I wanted to read it like it’s Homer or Toni Morrison or Stephen King even.”
Boasting a similar background in theater, having attended Playwrights Horizons Theater School at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Bravo referred to “Zola” as her “Hamlet,” citing German playwright and theatre director Heiner Müller’s “Hamletmachine,” an enigmatic 1977 play loosely based on the Bard’s 400-year-old tragedy.
“Zola” would have been released in 2020 were it not for Covid shutting down much of the industry, pushing many anticipated releases to 2021 and beyond, or sending them to streaming. “The last year had this kind of ‘Waiting for Godot’ quality, where Godot never makes it, and is never going to get there,” Bravo said.
The film will finally bow in front of audiences nationwide, when it’s unleashed in theaters June 30, 2021, by A24. Given the project’s slog from greenlight to screen (principal photography wrapped in December 2018), Bravo is certainly ready and even relieved, but also wary about the unpredictability of general audience reactions.
“I’d say that the critics have been very gentle and generous, and, even so, I just don’t know that critic and audience reactions are necessarily going to be the same,” she said, admitting that she’s too sensitive to stomach criticism generally, and therefore tries not to read reviews of her work. An unexpected reception of “Lemon” was instructive.
“I’m a little traumatized by the experience of my first feature, where I’d had a kind of expectation of what that was going to look like, but there wasn’t a good deal of generosity around how the film was received,” she said. “If you believe the good ones, you have to believe the not-good ones. And even if it’s a good review, I’ll somehow find the one sentence that is a little bit off and focus on that. Yes, this time around with ‘Zola’, there is much more love and care being directed at me. I just don’t want to anticipate what I feel the end result is going to be. But there’s absolutely value in criticism. It can make someone’s career, and that co-sign is super meaningful.”
One “co-sign” came courtesy of the Criterion Collection. Chided in 2020 for effectively shutting out Black directors from its library, it’s rare that a filmmaker of any color enters the selective Criterion canon so early in their careers, as Bravo has. Currently streaming on the label’s SVOD platform are four of the filmmaker’s “brilliantly outré shorts” which showcase “the singular, gonzo sensibility that has made her one of American independent cinema’s most exciting voices,” as Criterion states.
That “gonzo sensibility” was first put on display beyond the film festival circuit, in Bravo’s “Lemon,” which was a monumental challenge to finance because, per the filmmaker, the idea of a Black woman telling a biting tragicomic story about a middle-aged, white, Jewish man, bewildered some, in an industry that hasn’t made room for Black women artists with signature approaches to the craft.
“‘Lemon’ became this gesture towards a lot of the work that was being made in this space by my contemporaries, who were typically white men, with white male protagonists who were basically coming undone,” said Bravo. She developed the script with ex-husband Brett Gelman who also stars in the film. They knew they had to distinguish their take on the well-worn theme. “In these movies, everything always seems to work out for the lead in the end, so Brett and I wondered what happens in this world if things don’t work out.”
The project then took on an unexpected urgency that was personal for both of them. “I think of myself as a director that is in comedy, and there aren’t a lot of directors in comedy that look like me, so I’d been trying to break into or make a lane for myself in a space that just didn’t have room for me,” she said. “And we had been having this paralyzing anxiety that we were going to wake up one day, having arrived at a life that we had not meant for ourselves, like somehow we were going to have missed the boat. And so ‘Lemon’, for both of us, became an exorcism. It was me realizing that I didn’t want to later regret not having tried.”
Magnolia Pictures acquired “Lemon” after its Sundance debut, and gave it a simultaneous limited theatrical and streaming release in August 2017.
With “Lemon” and now “Zola,” as well as a handful of earlier short films (including the 2013 Sundance short-film jury award winner, “Gregory Go Boom”), Bravo joins Stella Meghie as Black women directors in Hollywood making films that occupy spaces in which they are barely represented: funny stories told with literary panache, set in distinct worlds, revolving around acerbic characters often at a crossroads. Radha Blank (“The Forty-Year-Old Version”) is a recent addition to this fledgling club. Collectively, they all can be considered progeny of the late Kathleen Collins, who described “Losing Ground,” her feature debut, as “a comedy about a young woman who takes herself too seriously.”
“Zola’s” release mere hours away, Bravo is understandably trepidatious, despite an 88% “Fresh” rating on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes. The filmmaker has now become “acclaimed writer-director Janicza Bravo,” and hailed as “a filmmaker to watch.” “Look at that,” she said. “Now my mom might understand what my job is!”
In all likelihood, the film will be her introduction to the mainstream, reaching audiences that “Lemon” did not, which should help raise awareness of Bravo, and, as a result, ease whatever path lies ahead.
“I’m mostly interested in making work that is a bit untested, which means it can be a difficult path,” Bravo said. “But I am still surprised by how arduous the process of getting a group of people to understand what you mean is, to understand your vision. But I do hope the road gets a little bit easier for me, a little more fair. For right now, I’m at ease knowing that, on June 30, ‘Zola’ will belong not to me, but to the world.”
A24 releases “Zola” in a limited theatrical release and VOD on Friday, June 30.