Janicza Bravo, the Latina Director Behind Hit Film ‘Zola’

Janicza Bravo BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of Rolling Stone.

As so many people on Twitter that October night in 2015, Janicza Bravo spiraled down with waitress Aziah “Zola” King and dove into her 148-tweet story about an unexpected journey into the depths of Florida’s exotic dance scene.

Like someone narrating a thriller, King enraptured users with her details about prostitution, murder, and suicide, making more than one director jump for the life rights to make what was already a movie in itself.

But Bravo didn’t have the money to compete against a pre-scandal James Franco. However, once the disgraced actor pulled out of the project, Bravo went for it.

This spirit to grasp the opportunity was part of her identity and experience in the industry.

Born in New York to Panamanian parents, Bravo spent her entire childhood shuttling back and forth between the U.S. and Panama.

At age 12, her family moved to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Bravo attended Playwrights Horizons Theater School at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she majored in directing and theater design.

After moving to Los Angeles and working as a stylist, she began writing and directing short films.

Her first film, “Eat,” premiered at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival. Two years later, “Gregory Go Boom” won the Short Film Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and 2014’s “Pauline Alone” landed Bravo on Filmmaker’s list of new faces in independent film.

But it would be her first feature film, “Lemon,” that would put her center stage.

“Lemon” reinterprets the archetype of the failed, awkward white actor, mixing humor with dissection of white imagery.

After premiering at Sundance in 2017, Bravo received arduous criticism from the media, who even labeled her “anti-Semitic.”

“Lemon was really painful and hard to make,” Bravo told Vulture. “But I think overall, the response was that we failed. I think the New York Times called me anti-Semitic, which is a bummer. I’m actually Jewish. Not to say that I can’t be a self-hating Jew! But they called me anti-Semitic, and I was like, Okay! It just felt bad. And I felt like a lot of that criticism was really aggressive.”

However, the Latina director would not be so easily discouraged.

After securing the rights to King’s story and conquering the arduous road to her new production, “Zola” premiered at Sundance in January 2020. 

Unexpectedly, the COVID pandemic would put her work on hold in time and space.

“I was frustrated. I really thought it was gonna be my year. I was scared, and I was sad, and I felt like I’d missed the boat,” Bravo told the magazine. “And I felt like there wasn’t room for me to mourn that because it was a year filled with so much loss. My parents have lost seven friends. We lost our hairstylist on Zola. He was the first person that we as a Zola family lost to COVID. I lost my stepfather at the beginning of this year. So mourning the material felt so hollow and empty. I didn’t know how to hold both of those things, to lose people and feel like I was losing my work and myself. I didn’t know how to make room for all of that.”

Bravo would have to wait more than a year to see her new film open this June 30.

“Part road movie, part B-picture, part prurient walk on the wild side, Zola preserves the audacious, self-actualized voice and vulgar humor that made King’s 148 tweets such compelling reading,” the Washington Post reviewed. “But Bravo and her co-screenwriter, playwright Jeremy O. Harris (‘Slave Play’) inject just enough ambivalence to ensure that the audience is never entirely comfortable with a story that in other hands might have been played as a slumming summer romp.”

After all, this Latina director’s perseverance has paid off, and Zola is just the first fruit of what promises to be an amazing harvest.