TAMPA — It began as a single tweet that snowballed into a nearly 150-tweet saga about stripping, forced prostitution, gun play and an attempted suicide. Those tweets were read by millions.
It then became a Rolling Stone magazine expose optioned as a screenplay that was shot throughout the Tampa Bay area where the story — a mix of fact and fiction — took place.
Now, Zola the movie has a June release date and has made multiple early-year lists as a must-see film of 2021.
“While the story of Zola may point out some of the seedier elements of the bay area,” Hillsborough County film commissioner Tyler Martinolich said, “it provides an important perspective and an opportunity for endless conversation.”
The movie, according to its official website, is about Zola, a Detroit waitress, who strikes up a new friendship with customer Stefani “who seduces her to join a weekend of dancing and partying in Florida. What at first seems like a glamorous trip full of ‘hoeism’ rapidly transforms into a 48-hour journey involving a nameless pimp, an idiot boyfriend, some Tampa gangsters and other unexpected adventures in this wild, see-it-to-believe-it tale.”
Time magazine says Zola is among the “39 Most Anticipated Movies of 2021.” Other films on that list include blockbusters like the new James Bond installment No Time to Die, Marvel Studios’ Black Widow and Fast and Furious 9.
“The movie debuted to raves at Sundance at the top of 2020,” Time wrote.
IndieWire.com, a film industry and review website, lists Zola as among “The 25 Best Films of 2021 We’ve Already Seen.”
“If the evolution of creativity in the 21st century means that Twitter feeds can fuel feature-length adaptations, Zola is a terrific place to start,” they wrote.
Entertainment website Mashable.com calls Zola one of the “15 films we can’t wait to see in 2021.”
“With its irresistible stranger-than-fiction hook,” they wrote, “this is one wild ride you don’t want to miss.”
Film critic Richard Roeper wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times that Zola is among his “most anticipated movies of the new year.”
And, based in part on her starring role in Zola, Vogue magazine says actress Taylour Paige is among “The 15 Rising Stars Poised to Dominate 2021.”
The part-fact, part-fiction story unfolded like this:
Over a 48-hour period in October 2015, a 19-year-old woman named Aziah “Zola” Wells took to Twitter to tell of her March 2015 weekend trip to Tampa.
The tale told by Wells was based on real people and a real trip. The most salacious parts were made up.
It began in the Michigan Hooters where Wells worked when customer Jessica Swiatkowski invited her on a road trip to Tampa for a weekend of dancing in the city’s famous strip clubs. Going with them would be Swiatkowski’s boyfriend Jarrett Scott and friend Akporode “Rudy” Uwedjojevwe.
That much appears to be true.
Through the tweets, Wells then wrote that Swiatkowski was forced into prostitution by Uwedjojevwe, who also shot a rival pimp in the face, and that Scott attempted suicide by jumping from a hotel balcony.
Wells has admitted that the shooting and suicide attempt were made up. Swiatkowski has since denied she prostituted. Uwedjojevwe was later arrested for sexual assault and trafficking in an unrelated incident in Reno, Nevada.
The tale took off on the internet as #TheStory. Ava DuVernay, Missy Elliott, Keke Palmer, Solange Knowles and other stars shared it.
Tampa native and writer David Kushner later separated fact from fiction through the Rolling Stone article. Kushner is credited as a writer and producer of the movie, which was shot throughout the Tampa Bay area in late 2018.
The studio producer is A24, which was behind the Academy Award-winning movie Moonlight.
“A24 has a track record of producing and distributing thought-provoking films from directors with unique direction and artistic choices,” Martinolich said. “I’m extremely excited to see the film.”