In ‘Jezebel,’ director Numa Perrier recalls the early days of internet sex work
Co-founder of Black and Sexy TV premiered her first film at SXSW
When Jezebel writer-director Numa Perrier moved to Las Vegas in 1998, a young woman could make good money taking her clothes off and simulating sex on the internet — about $15 to $20 per hour at a time when the federally mandated minimum wage was $5.15.
It was also a time of incredible personal upheaval for her: Perrier’s adoptive mother died, and she and her siblings were left to figure out how to pay for the burial. Perrier had to grow up, and quick. But Perrier’s first foray into adult independence, and the relative financial success of online “camming,” allowed her to eventually move to Los Angeles and pursue her dream of becoming an artist.
Nearly 20 years later, Perrier was back in Las Vegas and once again juggling a big life transition. This time, though, she was in charge, as writer, director and producer of her own story.
Over the course of 2016 and 2017, Perrier had split from her romantic and business partner of eight years, Dennis Dortch. Together, they’d founded Black & Sexy TV, a production company and network that makes web series. Early collaborators included Issa Rae, Lena Waithe and Ashley Blaine Featherson. (Rae acted in a series called The Couple; Waithe and Featherson co-created another series, Hello Cupid, which starred Featherson.) Dortch and Perrier enjoyed successes, including a development deal with HBO, collaborations with BET and the introduction of a paid streaming service model. They had a daughter, Rockwelle, who is now 7. But their personal relationship was disintegrating, and an opportunity emerged for both parties to try working on their own. In 2017, Dortch briefly went to South Africa to work with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Perrier headed to Las Vegas to shoot her feature directorial debut Jezebel, a semi-autobiographical film she wrote about her introduction to online sex work.
The film premiered earlier this month at South by Southwest, marking Perrier’s biggest solo accomplishment of her career. She and her crew were instantly identifiable around the festival: Perrier kitted everyone out in matching satin jackets like the Pink Ladies of Grease. Perrier is currently entertaining offers for distribution.
In Jezebel, Perrier plays Sabrina, a character based on Perrier’s older sister. She cast newcomer Tiffany Tenille to play herself at 19. The two sisters share a small one-bedroom weekly rental with Sabrina’s boyfriend, David (Bobby Field), their brother Dominic (Stephen Barrington) and Sabrina’s daughter (played by Perrier’s real-life daughter). The film takes its name from the most luxurious item Sabrina owns: a wig of long, curly black hair that Tiffany nicknames “Jezebel.” Money is tight, no one has enough privacy and the siblings’ mother is dying of a chronic illness.
Facing pressure to find a job and get her own place, Tiffany takes the wig Sabrina has given her and, at Sabrina’s urging, answers an ad to be a “cam girl” for an internet company owned and operated by a white brother and sister. She names her online alter ego “Jezebel.” Tenille exists fluidly in the gray area between girl and woman in the role; the first time Jezebel appears on camera on the internet, she’s wearing a dowdy white bra. Her own hair, under her wig, is pulled into a ponytail with a scrunchie.
“I saw [Tenille] in a short film,” Perrier said. “She didn’t even have any lines, but I knew immediately — just the sensuality, her face, that mix of innocence and naughtiness — she just kind of lives in that intersection. I knew that’s what the role required, and she seemed brave.”
Jezebel never panders to its audience by glossing over the stress-inducing artifice of serving others that sex work so often requires. But it does take delight in exposing the naive silliness that often characterized the early days of internet porn. There were no high-def cameras, and the customers were connected via dial-up modem. The images were slow, silent and choppy, and cam girls had to type on a keyboard to talk to their clients. The word for the job, “cam girl,” wasn’t even a common part of the lexicon yet. Tiffany is the company’s only black employee, which later becomes an issue when a client begins spewing racist insults at her and her employer fails to see the need to meaningfully intervene.
The film’s portrayal of sex work doesn’t fall into overused tropes of exploitation or victimization, but it doesn’t make the world more glamorous than it is either. The most remarkable thing about Perrier’s vision of sex work is that it’s just that — work. It’s one of the few cases where the story of a black woman engaged in sex work is shown with a frank, matter-of-fact quality without shame, titillation or unchallenged acceptance of race fetishes.
Perrier’s acuity for depicting the unadorned banalities of being broke is reminiscent of Sean Baker’s work in Tangerine or The Florida Project. But then, she was acutely close to the subject. Perrier shot Jezebel in the same Las Vegas weekly rental complex where she lived when she moved there as a teen. To save money on production costs, she and Rockwelle slept on set, and Perrier put the rest of the crew up in a hotel.
The experience of leading a crew and calling the shots on her own was exhilarating but also painful. Revisiting the site of so much economic insecurity was like triggering post-traumatic stress disorder. The memories of the pressure of making weekly rent payments and bickering over meals of ramen and Pop-Tarts came right back. The location was so small, her camera crew wondered how they would compose shots without their equipment getting in the way. The place even smelled the same, she said.
“In Vegas, outside of the Strip, nothing really changes,” Perrier said. “It’s like entering a time warp.”
Still, the choice to revisit Las Vegas, where Perrier filmed most of the movie, paid off. The past year has been explosive for Perrier’s career. She raised the money to complete Jezebel with a successful crowdfunding campaign. She landed a role on Frankie Shaw’s Showtime comedy Smilf. (Showtime recently canceled the show when Shaw was accused of misconduct on set. Perrier said she could not elaborate on the circumstances.) And after enjoying a warm reception and critical notice at SXSW, Perrier headed to New Orleans, where’s she part of Ava DuVernay’s sorority of female directors filming the fourth season of Queen Sugar.
We spoke in Perrier’s hotel room in Austin, Texas, when Perrier blew off the after-party of the SXSW awards. Perrier was spent. The journey to SXSW, as a solo director, had tested her confidence. She was re-evaluating her sense of self and who she was without her longtime creative partner.
“That’s why I’m proud of this movie and not giving up on it,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if anyone would want to work with me or be associated with me now that I’m not with Black & Sexy. I was really insecure about that. I know it sounds weird, but it became my identity too, and I thought it was going to be my legacy. I was like, Oh, we’re gonna build this thing forever and it’s going to grow into all these different — I had such big visions for Black & Sexy. And now I’m like, OK, I’m going to pivot that another way.”
Besides writing, acting and directing, Perrier is a visual artist. With the financial cushion provided by Smilf and Queen Sugar, Perrier is planning her next projects: another movie (a thriller inspired by the story of her adoption) and an art installation project of oversize, customized, black blowup dolls.
“I’m going to be able to provide for myself and my daughter and be creative,” Perrier said. “Do the things I love, tell the stories I want to tell. I can see it all. I’m OK. I’m OK.”
This article has been changed to correctly identify the organization that Dennis Dortch worked with in South Africa.