As the film and television industry continues to strive for more diversity and inclusion, we thought it might be time to spotlight some up-and-coming directors who already have their feet on the ground, putting in the work. This month we wanted to shine the light on writer and director Janicza Bravo. Bravo is no stranger to the screen with just over 20 directing credits and 11 writers’ credits for various projects including Atlanta, Dear White People, and Them. Her first feature Lemon premiered in 2017 and won Best Feature Narrative at the Monmouth Film Festival. The film was also nominated for eight other awards. Her most recent feature Zola, which stars Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, and Colman Domingo, hit theaters on June 30th.
The film follows Zola, a Detroit dancer who tags along with instant “friend” Stefani, her boyfriend and another passenger whose identity becomes clear only after they arrive in Florida. Through a number of crazed and unfavorable circumstances, Zola does what she needs to keep herself safe and make it home, while also doing what she can to keep Stefani in check. “Zola” is also based on a thread of 148 tweets by A’Ziah “Zola” King from 2015 which instantly went viral.
In an interview with Vulture.com, Rachel Handler sat down with Janicza Bravo herself to talk about Zola, and her directing style. When asked about her initial thoughts and reaction to the twitter thread Bravo said, “I read it that first night, in 2015. I sent it to my agent and my manager…they said something like, ‘We’ll get back to you.’ And 72 hours later, they said, “There’s an article in Rolling Stone, and there’s life rights, and that seems to be a way in. But there are five bidders… I think they were independent producers and a studio that was bidding, and I’d made, I think, two short films [at that point]. So I wasn’t a contender…But I sent an email — at what I’m hoping was a reasonable time — to Christine Vachon and David Hinojosa at Killer Films, who were on my first feature, Lemon, as producers. I understood that projects took a while to get going and that men directors kind of go through projects, so I just said, ‘If this ever becomes available, know that I’m out here, and I’m interested.’ I found out at the top of 2017, after Lemon premiered at Sundance, that the property was available. And I made my shot.”
Mentioning the original script, Bravo said, “It was hypermasculine. It was written by men, and I think that version was maybe speaking to a different audience. I think A’Ziah, the real Zola, introduced us to a world that was, at least to me, foreign. She introduced it to me with a lot of care but didn’t dumb it down. She was like, ‘Here’s the world. Come along for the ride. I’m not going to explain it to you, but you’re an intelligent enough person and audience, you’ll be able to deduce by what I’m showing you.’ But [the original script] version was breaking down the world or simplifying it in some way. I wanted to lean into the enigma.”
Lastly, getting into her directing style, she had this to say, “I think my comedy tone — I’d describe my place in that market as ‘stressful comedy’…The truth is, without the humor, I wouldn’t be the right director for it. I don’t have the range for it. Maybe I do, but it’s not a space I’d feel necessarily comfortable in. The part where it’s funny and stressful and dark and uneasy, and sometimes all of those notes being played at the same time, is me.”
For me, this film hit the bull’s eye. The story was told with the perfect balance of humor and suspense. I walked away happy knowing that this was a real Black woman’s story being told and shown by other Black women. I felt that the film carried the same tension that the Twitter thread did. The film brought us into Zola’s lifestyle and we learned as the film progressed. It wasn’t something I had seen before in this way, and I thought it was crafted extremely well. Janicza Bravo is more than a rising star with a unique vision that I’ll be waiting to see more of.
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