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The movie “Zola” tells a harrowing tale of sex trafficking and violence and it’s based on a somewhat true story. But how much is actually true?
The film is based upon A'Ziah "Zola" King's viral 148-tweet thread from 2015 explaining how she was roped into a series of misadventures and misdemeanors in Florida after befriending a fellow stripper named Jessica at a Detroit Hooters. The Twitter thread’s movie adaptation, created by Janicza Bravo (who also directed the picture) and Jeremy O. Harris, hit theaters Tuesday. While the highly stylized film tells a harrowing tale of how Zola was allegedly lured into sex trafficking by her new friend, which kicked off a series of harrowing situations including a shooting, how much is actually based in reality?
Zola told Rolling Stone in 2015 that she did indeed meet a Jessica, a 21-year-old Jessica Rae Swiatkowski to be exact, at the Hooters where she worked when she was 19.
“She was really nice,” Zola told the publication. “She was sweet, she was cute.”
However, her view on Jessica would soon change. A few days later she said Jessica invited her on a trip to Florida; Zola said that her new pal claimed it was to make money dancing.
King agreed and went on the trip along with Jessica’s boyfriend, Jarrett Scott, and her roommate Akporode “Rudy” Uwedjojevwe. Zola said in her thread that Rudy, whom she nicknamed "Z" on Twitter and was renamed “X” in the film, was Jessica’s pimp.
Jessica confirmed that to Rolling Stone, saying that she originally met Rudy after a client raped her at a strip club. He showed her kindness and offered her a safe haven of sorts. But she soon found out what he did for a living.
“He goes to parties and finds the dumbest drunk girl,” she told Rolling Stone. “A week later, they would be on Backpage.”
Jessica and Zola differ on their account of who was doing sex work during the Florida trip. Zola maintains that she didn’t do it herself but instead helped Jessica create a more lucrative Backpage than the one that Rudy had arranged for her. Meanwhile, Jessica has claimed that Zola was doing sex work herself.
In the thread, and the movie, the character based upon Jarrett attempts suicide by tying to jump off a balcony, continuously anguished by how his girlfriend was supporting herself. Zola told Rolling Stone she made that part up for dramatic effort. The thread, and movie, also feature a scene in which Rudy shoots another pimp in a hotel room after the latter abducted Jessica. He dies in the Twitter thread. Both Zola and Jarrett told Rolling Stone that didn’t happen either. Jarret did say that Rudy told the hotel clerk to call the police after a man tried to take Jessica.
The thread concludes with Zola departing Florida and receiving a collect call four days later from Jessica, who was in a Las Vegas jail. She was supposedly calling to say that she and Rudy got arrested for sex trafficking in addition to a string of murders.
The murders aspect is definitely an embellishment but the sex trafficking arrest is certainly not. A 2016 KOLO-TV report notes that investigators determined that Rudy lured three Michigan women between 19 and 21 to Reno, Nevada to work as sex workers shortly after the events in Zola’s thread.
Jessica Forgie, who was 19 at the time, told told Oxygen.com this week that she is one of the three Michigan women mentioned; she said her best friend Breeonna Pellow and Jessica Swiatkowski were the other two. Forgie claims she is responsible for getting Rudy arrested, after he allegedly assaulted her after trying to forcibly sex traffic her. Both Pellow and Forgie alleged to the Washington Post in 2015 that Jessica Swiatkowski was in on the scheme but she has never been charged with anything. In the Rolling Stone story from the time, she said she herself was a victim of Rudy.
Rudy pleaded guilty in 2016 to sex trafficking and coercion. He has a probation hearing in July and is eligible for parole after serving five years and four months. Forgie, who is unhappy with the film because she feels it glamorizes sex trafficking, told Oxygen.com that both the movie and the though of Rudy being set free makes her feel “sick.”
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