ARRAY Releasing, an independent distribution company launched by award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay, has acquired Numa Perrier’s debut feature film ‘Jezebel.’ You may know Perrier from her previous contributions to the scripted content network, Black & Sexy TV. She co-founded Black & Sexy TV on the basis of exploring intimacy and relationships between young black couples. Black & Sexy TV’s first episodal series ‘The Couple’, starring Issa Rae and Numa Perrier, on their Youtube channel gained acclaim from HBO and Spike Lee and landed them an HBO deal in 2014.
Now, Perrier takes the stage once again by co-starring, writing, producing, and directing in her feature film debut ‘Jezebel.’ A story that hits close to home because it is a true story that documents Perrier’s life experiences in the late ’90s starting her early career in sex-work. Winner of the Best Narrative Feature and Best Director Award at the African American Film Festival, the film follows the 19-year-old Tiffany (Tiffany Tenille) as she navigates her dying mother’s financial struggles. By working as an internet fetish cam girl in the ‘90s, the young woman uses her fantasy world as an escape from her real-life circumstances.
‘Jezebel’ not only follows the script of a great coming-of-age but it reveals a young black woman coming into her sexuality in a way that the screen hasn’t seen much of. Audiences have seen the trope of women coming into their sexuality because a man comes into their lives, most likely for the first time. Tiffany’s awakening began the moment she put on the wig named “Jezebel.” We witness her transformation from a devoted and helpful family member of five to an outspoken and fearless cam girl. She renames herself “Jezebel” and takes on a whole new persona as she navigates her newfound fantasies and seeing herself as a sexual being. She recognizes her power through the frilly lingerie she buys herself, makeup, and the newfound freedom of being vulnerable and intimate for most of all, herself. The cam job she acquires through her sister from an ad in the paper is one in which she can’t see the users of the new adult website but they can see her. Through the voyeuristic gaze of anonymous users, she is able to be herself and get to know what the desire for intimacy means without eyes watching her.
She wields this power through her online chatroom regular Bobby (voiced by Fleabag star Brett Gelman). As Jezebel gets closer to Bobby, we fear for her safety while she revels in the new gifts and charm of her anonymous lover. We fear for Jezebel and Sabrina as well because of the exploitative side of sex work that is lurking with every decision she makes. From the moment the film opens with Sabrina (Numa Perrier), Tiffany’s sister, we see how cis-heteronormative white men exploit black femme beauty. Sabrina’s source of income is being a phone-sex operator. We hear her speaking with the client and describing herself with “long blonde hair” and tempting him with the idea of her “pink pussy.” Perrier shows the perils of a white cis-male dominated industry that seeks to control the fantasies that they consume.
In Sabrina’s case, the fantasy that she is forced into is posing as a long blonde haired white woman and in Tiffany’s case, she enters a chatroom with a hostile user who calls her the n-word. Perrier uses moody and sensual purples and pinks in the private chatroom to create a fantastical playroom that almost feels safe. But that safety net is cut when she shows just how lonely it can be when Jezebel is the only “live black model” at her job and her white coworkers won’t block the user for his heinous language. Her white coworkers compare the racial slur to words that they’ve been called like “ugly slut” and is told to “get thicker skin.” The fantasy begins to fade for Jezebel and she is forced to see the reality of a job that doesn’t entirely love the freedom of black female sexuality.
Perrier is using her platform as a filmmaker to control the narrative about women in sex-work in an industry that frequently exploits black women’s bodies and forces them into oppressive stereotypes. The film is a beautiful and raw addition to Ava Duvernay’s slate of independent cinema that amplifies people of color and women filmmakers globally. This is a true story about sisterhood that is nurturing and honest and reveals the power of sexual freedom without exploitation. The colors and music set the tone for a sensual film with absolutely no nudity but strips down what it means to be completely uncritical of a world that the legal and justice system continue to criminalize.
“Jezebel” made its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Festival. It is available for streaming on Netflix and in select cities in theaters. Watch the trailer below.