“We’re in good hands with Numa Perrier, who wraps you in a cocoon of safety as we traverse Jezebel’s difficult material together.”
Title: Jezebel (2019)
Director: Numa Perrier 👩🏾🇺🇸
Writer: Numa Perrier 👩🏾🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Numa Perrier knew she needed to make Jezebel. She had the life experience to render the story and it was only a matter of finding support. Thankfully, programs like Through Her Lens by Tribeca Film Institute exist for that exact reason, and through their mentorship—alongside the financial help of Perrier’s sister and a healthy GoFundMe collection—audiences were treated to Perrier's directorial debut last week at SXSW.
Jezebel paints an intimate and semi-autobiographical portrait of two sisters struggling to make ends meet in Las Vegas. The script feels straightforward and draws from slice-of-life works that came before it, culminating in what feels like standard indie fare. Close-ups or meditations on seemingly mundane activities feel familiar and never quite exert the same level of impact as the film’s best attribute: its authenticity and refreshing point of view.
After all, how often do we get to see a story about sex workers told in an empowering way? This isn't to say the industry can't be horrific, or that despicable practices like human trafficking don’t exist alongside the phone or internet sex work depicted in Jezebel. But it's important to understand the full picture, and to recognize that for some people like Tiffany aka “Jezebel” (Tiffany Tenelle), plying one’s body for coin in a legal and controlled environment can be an opportunity. Tiffany not only survives on the money afforded her through being a cam girl, but thrives.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Even without knowing that a female director has excavated her personal story for the silver screen, viewers looking for a feminist slant can trust Jezebel right away based solely on the way the camera captures women's bodies.
I’m asked all the time what rules there are to avoid exerting a male gaze through the lens. I answer repeatedly that there is no formula. Jezebel proves this because the camera does at times linger over Tiffany’s body without showing her face—something that’s generally a “no-no” unless you want to make your female viewers feel gross. Yet Perrier takes care to do this solely in scenes where Tiffany feels safe and in control. The way her hands rove over her own body as she dons a cute lacy bra and panty set clearly depicts her in the midst of discovering her own sexuality. Yes, the camera zooms in tight on her chest and hips. But any ickiness is offset by the narrative context and washed in naturalistic lighting, Tiffany’s slow caresses feel like an act of self love.
In contrast, consider an instance where Tiffany doesn't feel safe. During her job interview in a sallow, fluorescent-tinged office, she’s asked to strip in front of Chuck (Dennis Jaffee), the man who runs the webcam business. Even as Chuck looks her over in a discomfiting way, the camera politely averts its gaze, focusing instead on Chuck’s sleazy elevator eyes. It’s crucial that in this moment of vulnerability, audiences aren’t made to join in the exploitation of Tiffany’s revealed body. Instead, we watch her unsure face and root for her to get through this brief moment so that she can move on to better things. And she does, quickly ushered into a room to get trained by a fellow cam girl who’s friendly and puts Tiffany—and us, by proxy—at ease.
All this to say, it's difficult to make a bullet list of what constitutes the male gaze or the female gaze. So really, the easiest way to avoid the issue altogether is to put a woman behind the lens for scenes that focus on women’s sexuality. Or at least do as Barry Jenkins does in If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), and get women to consult on the scene in question.
Jezebel doesn’t need a consultant though, as Perrier handles a potentially tricky film about sex work with the utmost care. We’re in good hands, and everything from the script to the framing to the standout lighting—soft and aglow, safe like the inside of a faerie-lit treehouse—wraps you in a cocoon of safety as we traverse the film's difficult material together.
While race is never tackled head-on, it doesn’t need to be. Jezebel comes from the lived experience of a Black woman who at one point in her life, as depicted within the film, had to live in a cramped studio with four other people. It provides an inside look at a Black family unit and presents a unique version of sisterhood. I can’t say that either of my older sisters have ever given me money to buy myself a vibrator, but the relationship between Tiffany and her sister Sabrina, played by Perrier herself, is no less nurturing than how we typically define a healthy relationship between siblings. Meanwhile, the unique problems Black women have to face come into the narrative organically. Much as minorities can’t avoid issues of race, neither can Tiffany.
The most overt instance of race occurs when Tiffany gets called a “N----- BITCH” in the chatroom by a client. Right away, we see how little support she receives from her white coworkers. The two fellow cam girls she shares the couch with flippantly equate the racial slur with being called “whores” or “dirty pussies”, and when Tiffany storms into the office to demand that Chuck ban the client from the chatroom, Chuck just tells her to calm down and says that he’s “a good customer”. Without ever having to say it aloud, Jezebel recognizes the inherent differences in living life as a Black sex worker versus a white sex worker.
Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.33/5
I’ve seen indie movies that center young women, and I’ve seen films that comment on sex work. But I’ve never seen such a personal story from a director who has that lived this experience and for that reason, Jezebel succeeds in bringing something new to the table. I love Perrier’s refusal to let society stamp out the joys that can be found in non-traditional ways. Hulu’s Harlots and Pose on FX have touched on similar material and each title brings a fresh perspective to media’s collective portrayal of the seedy, but sometimes empowering industry.
For Tiffany, that feeling of empowerment comes in the form of a safe john; a tough love sister; a pair of indecent, thigh-high patent leather stiletto boots. They might not be widely accepted by society, but her joy is hers to own and I enjoyed watching her self-confidence grow over the course of the film. We need more positive stories about Black women from low-income backgrounds, and Jezebel is a great entry to help outweigh the decades of cinema that only show this demographic from a single facet.