Director Janicza Bravo on Zola, a Twitter Saga Gone Silver Screen

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Days before our interview, director Janicza Bravo fell asleep behind the wheel of her car. Shaken by the accident, she took a while to recalibrate herself. “Today is the day,” she tells me through Zoom, “when I decided to move on.” She laughs as she says it. Your Los Angeles office is exploding with light as far as I can see. Behind her, a mirrored wall unit reveals what’s going on: sun-dappled leaves, rows of neatly labeled trash cans, Bravo folded in on a desk. She wears a striped boat neck shirt and lights a cigarette in the middle of a sentence. Breath in, breath out. She looks at me, not her digital reflection, and asks, “How are you?”

I’m fine, I’m living in the dregs of the quarantine. I keep jumping to ask what she sees. “I left the TV on the Turner Classic Movies channel.” Does that exist with streaming? “I don’t know, but I love the live element. Something about the ability to have a choice is misleading me into not making a choice. With cables I can check the schedule. I can say, ‘Okay, so that’s what’s going on tonight. I’ll be back at 7:45 am. ‘”Isn’t it exciting to be surprised? “It’s like going to a museum while traveling. It doesn’t matter what you see there, I’ll just experience something because it’s available to me. It’s joy. ”There is also joy – and a little pain – in a true belly laugh, something Bravo’s films are known to provoke.

She tells me a story: “I’m in LA so I went to a juice shop the other day – I know, crazy. The woman at the counter said, ‘I saw your short films on Criterion. I only saw two of the four because I was really uncomfortable with them. I had to take a break. ‘”Bravo doesn’t blame her for that. “That’s such a fun thing, isn’t it? I do work on the discomfort I feel in my body. Not to say that I feel uncomfortable in my body, that’s how people treat me for my skin. So, of course, the work is permeated with my need. I have the feeling that laughter is the only way to exercise these feelings. “

I wonder if the juice store clerk was watching watch Gregory Go Boom (2013). The 18-minute short film follows Michael Cera as the disabled little brother Gregory, who blows himself up after a failed attempt to lose his virginity. Laughter collides with the grim reality of life in a world made for (often cruel) healthy people. He’s the sidekick in his own movie. The initial reactions were mixed; Strangers filled their inboxes with anger. “Most of the protagonists I’ve worked with in my shorts had access to oppression, which made it to others. I’ve studied how white moves through otherness, but it can also be manifested in a white body. ”Many of Bravo’s films show mostly white casts. This is partly coincidental as she first met many of her actors as friends, such as Cera or her former partner, Brett Gelman, who co-wrote and worked on her debut film lemon (2017).

Gelman plays Isaac, a bitter acting coach who imposes his slimy behavior on everyone, especially the cute make-up artist Cleopatra – a patient Nia Long. She’s the only one who has empathy for him, but she has to interrupt things after he tries to kidnap her grandmother at a family barbecue. These are not white films, despite the white faces. Wisdom could not have this perspective on itself. It can’t know how overwhelming its presence can be. The drama of Douglas Sirk or the absurdity of David Lynch come close, but Bravo’s laughter is the most convincing. “I wanted to deal with the white visibility that moves through the world. Yes, how do you move violently through the world in a white body without giving up? “

The first time Jeremy O. Harris heard Janicza Bravos laugh at a Hollywood party in 2015. Harris called me from Paris: “I was out with a guy and he took me to a party at this famous actress’s house. While I was downstairs, all the white people at that party started rapping along to a song and they all said the N word. I thought, ‘I have to use the toilet!’ The date was terrible. I went upstairs and heard a distinctive black laugh. ”He followed the sound and found Bravo in the kitchen. They shared the same sense of humor and joked about what they had just experienced. He quickly realized that she was directing Gregory Go Boomthat he loved and wrote. Harris was entering his sophomore year at Yale when the Zola job came up.

Zola (2020) retells Aziah Wells’ 2015 Twitter epic, the story that made her go viral. The thread invents the long-form Twitter reading and is a story of two strippers who go to Florida to work. Like Homers Odyssey, or Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Zola wants to go home. Entangled in an obsessive friendship with a white girl, she lets herself be seduced. The plan should have been simple: go down, move out, make some money, go to the beach. Even her roommate and boyfriend would join in! What follows is a chaotic sequence of truth exposures that leads Zola to almost sex trafficking, being humiliated, and held at gunpoint. Her roommate turns out to be her pimp and her boyfriend as a cuck. What?! “I came here to dance” is a phrase she repeats throughout the film.

Harris had to take part in the adaptation. He was working on Slave game (2017), which later earned him twelve Tony nominations when given the chance to take notes Zola came with bravo. Aziah’s story touched them individually, but the movie they saw in their minds was identical. “It’s so difficult to adapt something because everyone has their own personal idea of ​​it. We saw the same thing with us. “Bravo had one condition:” She told me that she would not apply if I did not show up for my training. She knew how hard I had worked. She said, ‘If you want to do this, you have to finish your project in the second year before we start.’ ”He finished the first draft of Slave game faster because he wanted to make sure she could read it and apply to co-author in time.

Woman looking into the sunlight

Slave game follows three multiracial couples who seek to cast the demons of gender, race, and history from their relationships. Production disrupted the hashtag #slaveplay, a thread first used for sexual racial games on the internet. Harris describes his work with Bravo as “an artistic and intellectual boot camp,” something that helped him develop the rigor necessary to bring his play to Broadway later. What were the stakes? “We wanted to say that no matter what you feel or don’t feel about Aziah’s story, at the end of the day there was a young woman who was lied to.”

Janicza Bravo makes black films because she is a black filmmaker. Your work may not satisfy the current thirst for representation, but who cares? Enough has been written on the black bodies we see on screen, Ryan Murphy. “I knew I had to be the one to direct it. Who else was going to protect this woman? ”Harris tells me that she directed before she got the job. “She had a Dropbox folder for every gesture she thought every character would make, lighting references, costume references, interior references. It was like the film was finished. ”Seeing is not listening, and bravo has to be heard. Your voice is in writing, photographing, cutting and styling.

Black authorship is often discredited, especially online. Unsurprisingly, Wells’ story was challenged when it was first published. Bravo recalls, “In 2015 I had read a handful of articles, and each article questioned the validity of their story instead of talking about what happened, the horror of what happened. So for me the Twitter thread was gospel. That’s it. I will tell the story as it was worded. ”Bravo manages to read the film as a copy-and-paste of the original text. Editing is based on online swiping, and the problem of screen text is solved through the use of self-talk. Like scrolling your feed, the film entertains, worries and wonders – all at once.

Stefani – originally called “white slut” in the thread – is played by Riley Keough as a pink bimbo meme in its final form. Evil embodied, with hilariously sticky and cute manipulative tactics, infantilizes itself to evade responsibility and cares for nobody’s safety – not even their own. Sure, she lied, but she’s also lying to herself. Your excessive use of AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) is funny because it is demeaning and causes what people online would refer to as “twitching”. It pushes the viewer and Zola into a corner. At certain points in the film, I can’t tell if they’re going to kiss or punch.

Is there something gay about female friendship? Bravo thinks so. “That was really something that happened in my 20s. I would meet certain women and fall in love with them. It was somewhere between platonic and romantic. I wanted to share a bed with them, eat together every meal, even bathe with them. I wanted them to know every story I had to tell. Then, at a certain point, we would never want to speak again. ”In the world of Zola, a dimension right next to ours, a funhouse mirror gives us a glimpse into the recent past.

This film is about watching Taylour Paige’s face. As Zola, she is an observer, a visitor who does not want to stay long. She reminds me of Johnny in Gus Van Sant’s Mala Noche (1986), the lonely Mexican traveler who doesn’t speak the language but manages to become the object of a white clerk’s obsession. Like a performer from the silent movie era, Paige’s face communicates everything, regardless of whether she is afraid, listens or calculates her next step. In the film, she asks, “Who’s taking care of me?” Both she and the audience know it’s just her. And while we see Zola’s trauma, we also see her getting through the night. We see how she outdoes the pimp, relaxes in the Florida sun and, at the most beautiful moment in the film, see what she came to do: dance.

Witnessing trauma is something we as viewers have become accustomed to in the name of representation. Complexity is often confused with seeing how much someone can take. Bravo treats their characters fairly. Did Zola know what she was getting into when she met Stefani at Hooters? May be. “There was something chemical between them,” she says. “That’s what draws her to the adventure. Unlike Dorothy, she makes three enemies, not friends. What is brought to justice is their agency, so I call what we did a retelling. In the adaptation, she claims to have had this experience. ”Zola is a narrator in the Shakespeare sense, the character next to chaos. But why does she stay? Janicza Bravo can only speak for himself: “I have had some questionable adventures and have always been convinced that I will make it. Doesn’t a sick part of you want to see how it ends? “

Woman stands in front of hedges janicza bravo

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