With her intimate and confident debut feature film Jezebel, writer-director and actress Numa Perrier takes the audience into the early days of the internet, and the story of a young woman starting out in the newly burgeoning cam-girl industry.
Perrier’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film is set in the bare apartments and anonymous office buildings of Las Vegas – a world away from neon lights of the strip and casinos – where Tiffany (Tiffany Tenille) is living in a cramped, one bedroom apartment with her older sister Sabrina (Perrier), her boyfriend Dave and her two other siblings.
When her sister, who works as a phone sex operator, passes her a flyer asking for ‘internet models’, Tiffany enters the cam-girl industry as Jezebel, her initial awkwardness giving way to a newly found confidence as she becomes quickly successful in the online chat room.
Based on Perrier’s own experiences in her early life, Jezebel is a nuanced window into what could easily be an exploitative narrative, sensationalised or glamorised, two traps that Perrier deftly manages to avoid. Instead, the film explores black female sexuality, the burdens placed on young women in the family sphere and the unchecked racism that Tiffany faces in the industry.
Tenille combines both an unwavering strength with moments of pure vulnerability and anger, as a young woman trying to find her own way in the world while navigating grief and poverty. Shutting herself in the small bathroom of the apartment, she holds tight to the precious moments she can be by herself, truly able to express the emotions that have to be held in check around the rest of her family. Her brother Dominic (Stephen Barrington) is often openly hostile towards both her and Sabrina, expressing disgust for “the nasty shit” that he perceives both women do as their jobs, while offering no financial support himself.
The complexities of familial relationships comes to the fore: Tiffany is seen as independent and old enough to make her own way in the world, and despite their similarities in situation they find themselves in, Sabrina forces her to grow up quickly, to get a job and move out – unlike her attitude towards the older Dominic, who is seen as somehow needing extra protection against the world.
Perrier’s direction presents the side of a city that is far from the Las Vegas many tourists would recognise: returning the spaces in which she herself grew up, Perrier captures an in-between world that is only glimpsed by others. Similar to Sean Baker’s Tangerine, this feels like an authentic examination of the lives of those who are not often seen on screen, or allowed to tell their own stories.
An assured and unblinking depiction of the sex work industry in the late 90s, Jezebel is as tender in its character development as it is the narrative, creating a protagonist whose strength is intertwined with loss, whose sense of self blooms as she begins to enter adulthood.