This is the latest installment of “Breaking Black,” a weekly column focused on emerging black talent.
Numa Perrier based her feature directorial debut, “Jezebel,” on her own story: A woman and her sister survive on the margins of society as they navigate the politics of black female sexuality and womanhood. Set against the backdrop of the early days of webcamming, the film raises questions around agency and exploitation, while presenting sex work as exactly what it is: work.
For Perrier, it’s a film with strong resonance in a world where people are more apt to find connection online than in real life, and she hopes that its human story touches audiences most.
“I feel that it’s a love story between two sisters,” Perrier said. “These sisters are doing their best to take care of each other in a way that you might find unusual, but this is how they know how to, in preparing each other for better futures.”
The real-life story took place in 1999, when a 19-year-old Perrier, during the last days of her mother’s life, crashed with five family members in a Las Vegas studio apartment. To make ends meet, her older sister, a phone sex operator, introduced her to the world of internet cam girls. She became fetishized as the only black model at the adult website that hired her, and soon became emotionally involved with a customer. The fantasy world she created became an escape from the realities of difficult circumstances.
Sex work of any kind is often stigmatized, but Perrier believed in its merits and thought that it could even serve as a kind of catharsis.
“Our mother was the glue that held the family together, so some time after she died, we all just kind of went our separate ways and we never really talked about what happened with us, choosing to instead bury our emotions just so we could try to move on with our lives,” Perrier said. “And then I decided to start writing about it.”
It wasn’t easy at first, and there were the usual starts and stops. But “Jezebel” always beckoned at the back of her mind.
“I think part of it was that I really wasn’t ready to tell that story, but as I got older, and then becoming a mother myself, I came to see that it was a period of my life that had a lot to do with the person that I have become,” she said. “I realized how valuable the experience was, and that I had absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.”
Black women in Hollywood films have typically been depicted as the “mammy,” the “sapphire,” and the “jezebel.” The portrayal of black women as lascivious by nature has been an especially enduring stereotype. Perrier’s film subverts the trope, telling a coming-of-age story about one young woman’s ascent into womanhood as she comes to terms with her sexual identity. It prioritizes and normalizes the full range of human emotions with respect to black women’s experiences. Consequently, it’s the kind of film that could only exist outside the Hollywood mainstream.
With Tiffany Tenille as a younger Perrier, “Jezebel” unfolds in a restrained, no-frills pace and style that eschews melodrama, voyeurism, drugs, and violence. It serves the story, giving it a naturalism that allows its authenticity and humanity to shine through.
“Instead of asking what we can add, my thing is to ask what we can actually take away,” she said. “In this case, it’s a really slippery slope when you’re telling your own story, because I think it’s very easy to overdo things. So I gave myself all of these different parameters in making the film, to avoid that.”
For her, that meant a running time of less than 90 minutes and leaving cherished moments on the proverbial cutting-room floor. “Even if I had more money, I would always be looking for ways to just keep everything very stripped down,” said Perrier.
The film’s production budget came from her older sister (who Perrier plays in the film). And its post-production budget was raised via a 2017 GoFundMe campaign, which drew support from artists like Ava DuVernay, Jill Soloway, Arthur Jafa, Chelsea Peretti, and Solange Knowles.
Receiving additional support from Tribeca Institute programs “Through Her Lens” and “Work in Progress,” Perrier filmed “Jezebel” in 2017 over just 10 days on locations in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
The film premiered in the Visions section of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. Now, after months on the festival circuit, Perrier is excited for her “baby” to finally reach the wider public.
“Festival audience response has been surprisingly overwhelming, and it’s been received in such a deep, emotional way that’s even stronger than I imagined,” she said. “Soe of these festivals I’ve gone to are still like family to me, and it feels like the filmmaking community I belong to really wants to support my first feature, which is great. But I really want to see how it’s received by people who don’t necessarily have an attachment to that community, or a background in film. I want to see if they are able to connect to it on a human level.”
After DuVernay hired her to direct an episode of “Queen Sugar” — her first time directing for television — Perrier has set her sights on the next thing. The first she describes as “a feature for a major platform,” but the second is another personal project, “Blood Mother,” a thriller that tells the true story of how she reunited with her birth mother in Haiti.
“Jezebel” opens in a limited theatrical release via ARRAY and premieres on Netflix on January 16, 2020.