When the news that actor James Franco would be directing a film adaptation of Aziah “Zola” Wells‘ sprawling Twitter saga, it immediately registered as an outsider’s cheap take. While the film Zola Tells All might be anticipated by some, Franco helming the film feels a little invasive.
Without a doubt, Hollywood is a male-dominated, mostly-white industry and there aren’t a wealth of opportunities for directors of color, most especially women directors of color. But Wells, who according to her Twitter is involved in the screenplay, is a woman of color. Wouldn’t it make sense to have this story told by a rising director with a closer connection to the culture and social media pulse that made her story go viral?
Franco is a talented actor, director, and rising film producer. His resume is astounding, and in interviews, he appears to be a bright, thoughtful individual. This piece isn’t meant to be a total indictment of his character, although his directing the film does feel like a culture vulture fame grab. Franco is working on the film with Andrew Neel, who directed the documentary film Darkon which focused on the lives of Baltimore LARP role players. Essentially, these are two extremely white guys telling a story that resonated deeply with Black readers and its main protagonist is also Black.
Further, without the power and influence of Black Twitter, would the Zola tale even have gotten its wings? By the time it went mainstream (read: into the line of sight of influential white folks), plenty of those in Black social media and blog spaces basically moved on. And it’s a wonder that with all the talent present amongst Black Twitter’s top minds that one of those brilliant people couldn’t pull this off without the help of Hollywood.
To be fair to both Franco and Wells, this could be an amicable decision even if it looks cheap from a distance. White people telling Black stories isn’t a new Hollywood phenomenon and definitely not an occurrence we’ll be able to do away with an editorial, think piece or petition.
Will the movie skew toward comedy, as is a part of Franco’s cache, or will it lean towards the more tense and dangerous elements of the tale, including Zola’s friend Jessica and her dangerous pimp? Will it give Zola’s story a redemptive angle, or will it exploit the salacious portions of the story for the sake of entertainment?
It can’t be known how Franco, Zeel, and fellow screenwriter Mike Roberts will frame the story, but hopefully, they keep the heart and narrative of Wells’ story intact as possible.