By Andrea Thompson
Writer-director Numa Perrier certainly chose a fascinating topic for her feature film debut with “Jezebel,” which tells the coming-of-age story of Tiffany, a 19-year-old who is introduced to the world of Internet sex cam girls via her sister Sabrina, played by Perrier herself. I chatted with Perrier about topics ranging to womanism vs. feminism, hair, and how a work environment can be exploitative and empowering.
Andrea Thompson: First, I wanted to say thank you for your film “Jezebel.” You can really tell it was made by someone who lived this kind of experience.
Numa Perrier: Yes, it’s based on my true story. It absolutely is.
AT: Why did you decide to go so personal for your first film?
NP: This story is something that I lived and wrote about many years ago, like seven years ago. I wrote about it mostly to just kind of, just start expressing my feelings. A personal thing that I kept inside one of my drawers, but in the back of my mind, I always felt like it could make a good film one day. I was already living in Los Angeles pursuing acting, doing photography. I’ve been riding since I was a child, and all of those things naturally led me to filmmaking. And so I always remembered that I had this 50 pages that I had written about my experiences in Las Vegas, and I took that and expanded it into a feature. But it just made sense for this to be my first feature, because this was such a pivotal moment in my life, and an unusual circumstance that I haven’t seen dealt with before. So it just made sense to me, and I wanted to revisit it. Time had kind of gone by, and I was able to look at it as more of an observer. Because my life had changed so much and so I could kind of go in there and look at it as an artist and not so victimized by it in any way.
AT: How much of it does resemble your own experience? Did you change anything for the movie?
NP: Most of it is pretty true to form. There’s only like small changes like, the year is not the in fact year, that time frame. But the bulk of those themes and all of the characters are real, based on real people that I encountered. All the characters, all of the things that you see, are real things that happened. It’s just when and how, in what order is not exactly the same. I had to figure out how to build it to the right place.
AT: On that note, you mentioned you did this because you didn’t feel so exploited you could see it as an observer, like the character based on you, Tiffany. She does find a kind of empowerment in an environment that you also make clear is still very exploitative. Do you think women can often find that kind of power in environments like that?
NP: I find it a very interesting conversation, about agency versus exploitation. Sex work is real and legitimate, and in sex work you are dealing with a lot of the same issues that women are dealing with in every industry, asking for raises, wanting proper treatment and regulation. Everything that comes in that line of work, you’re also dealing with, and sometimes even more actually, the power dynamic and everything. So yes, I think that as in any line of work a woman can find empowerment and what her value really is, and can make that whatever she wants it to be. I definitely found that I didn’t exactly know it at the time. It took some distance from it for me to look back and say oh, wow, I see how this all contributed to the woman that I am today. I’m proud of the decision that I made and I want to tell the story. I want to show people that this is what it looked like.
AT: You also play a role in this film. Much of your work places a premium on not only progressive programming ,but kind of sexuality and sensuality. You have your own online network, Black & Sexy TV, that’s very progressive, very modern, and focuses on sexuality. Why did you decide to go that route and place such an emphasis on sexuality as well?
NP: About 10 years ago. I was making my first short film. At the same time, there was a film that was a feature film being made called “A Good Day to be Black & Sexy.” The director and writer of that film, came across my short film work and my photography work on MySpace, and we met. We ended up collaborating, and we had a long relationship together. We have a child together. We co-founded Black & Sexy TV with a team of artists. I just think that we both had a similar outlook on what Black intimacy is and what was kind of lacking in the in the space of film for what our images are and what our relationships look like, and that’s the honesty of that. So with a team of creatives, we built that digital platform, and it’s still thriving today. I stepped aside from the company to focus on my feature film and kind of on myself and my story, and I’m so glad that I did. But yes, we came together with a common sensibility just around Black voice, Black intimacy, and all of these dynamics within there.
AT: Your character that you play in the film, Sabrina, is…well, something very unusual in that she’s also a mother who’s sexual in a time when mothers are pretty much still depicted as like very asexual beings. Did you find it like difficult to portray yourself that way when you also have a daughter?
NP: I didn’t find it difficult at all. I find this to be a very great myth that mothers are not sexual. Mothers are the most sexual beings.
AT: Yeah, how else do they get pregnant?!!?
NP: You know, delivering a human being into the world. That came from a sex act! So mothers are the most sensual, sexual beings that exist. I think that there’s so much power in sex and there’s so much power in being a mother that this myth has been created that, how dare you be both. And I object to that.
AT: Yeah, that’s what every mother I’ve talked to says, is that they feel far more powerful. So you really think that myth comes from like, trying to hold back a woman who suddenly receives kind of like a burst of power from this event, this birth.
NP: I do, I really do. I think that this idea of, you’re not sexy as a mother is because how dare you be able to give life, bring life forward, and also have the power to do it again. (Laughs). And be seen as wanting to do it again. And I think it’s just a huge myth. Sex is a form of creation, can be a form of creation. And it’s a creative power and people want to stifle creativity. They want to stifle art and creativity, and it’s a huge part of that. The most creative I’ve ever felt was during my pregnancy, and I just discovered that it’s a huge myth. People say once you have a child, oh, you know, all of these things have to stop. And it’s like no, you actually expand. You’re literally expanding, your body and your creativity expands, everything expands. So I really don’t buy into that. I don’t live my life that way and any mother that I observe, it’s not that way either. There are many that are suppressed and repressed. But the true nature of them is not less creative, it’s more creative. It’s more powerful.
AT: On that note, there’s also a very close, motherly kind of relationship between your character Sabrina and Tiffany. And it’s unusual because Sabrina places a lot of trust in her very young, 19-year-old sister when she does this. She doesn’t freak out when Tiffany receives gifts and plans to meet one of her married clients. Did you do you think that’s unusual, and why do you think Sabrina decided to take that route?
NP: I think, perhaps it is unusual. It’s hard for me to see it after making the film and watching the film and having to kind of dissect it as a director, figure out the editing process and everything, and work with all of my creative collaborators. It’s when I realized how it was really not normal, but in my life it was our normal. It’s a very special relationship between sisters. A sister can be a mother and a friend. I think that you would tell your sister things that you would never tell your mother. But your sister can take on that motherly dynamic with you and especially between my sister and I when we lost our mother, that’s really what happened between us. I’ve stepped into that role as my mother. And for her to have trust in me going out and doing that job and going and meeting this person…I don’t know if I would qualify it so much as trust. I think she had a knowingness that I would be okay, but at the same time it was really more out of the survival of it. Like you know what, maybe somehow she felt like she would still be able to protect me, I don’t know. These are things I’m still actually unpacking with my sister because we haven’t talked about every nuance of this. But we talked about so much of it that we never talked about before, so I don’t know exactly how she felt, but when I was playing her, playing the character, I looked at it as the kind of risk that comes with surviving that part of our lives. And that it was kind of like a gamble that we had to take.
AT: Yeah, like especially when she was going to meet with one of her married clients. Like you said this is all pretty much based on your experience. Did you kind of develop a relationship like that with one of your clients?
NP: It’s as an absolute true story. I did become close. I feel like that’s another movie or the TV series component, because I want to go into what happened when I met Bobby. That’s a whole other movie, it took on a whole other story after that, but it’s a true story. I did meet him and he’s still very much in my life today.
AT: Wow, is that kind of thing common do you think?
NP: I don’t know that it’s common. I think it’s common for people to meet and I think everyone’s tried that at least once. I don’t know how common it is to sustain a relationship for over 10 years the way that we have. But I just think that we had a very true connection that we just maintained over the years, we maintained this relationship.
AT: Yeah, when you’re looking at sex workers traditionally in a lot of movies and still, like they’re they’re depicted as very disposable, especially with men who come to them who are married. But do you think that some kind of connection really does form?
NP: I think it’s possible. I think that it’s very true, a lot of it is very disposable. I didn’t feel the need to harp on that in the film, because I feel it is disposable. It’s just people are there to get what they need sexually, and that’s just kind of like the basic exchange of sex work. Someone has an urge and they need to fill it. But there’s a whole other layer that can also develop where people gain emotional attachment and people connect. It happens really with the internet, with the vanguard of the internet, being able to connect people all over the world. People are connecting in ways that they never connected prior to that. And so when you combine the sex industry with the internet, you’ve got kind of both of those things happening sometimes. So yeah, it was a lot of talking, a lot of chatting, a lot of getting to know each other and a lot of connecting.
AT: For a completely different question, I also noticed hair is really a big thing in this movie too. Kind of like an unspoken theme. When Tiffany is just starting out, she gets real excited that Sabrina gives her this really good, high-quality wig. And this wig becomes a big part of her costume as it were, and how Tiffany becomes Jezebel. And she makes a point, whenever she goes to work (to wear it), while never alone or with her family. Can you comment on that too?
NP: Yes well, hair is a big entry point to womanhood, sexuality, sensuality. And it’s very important within the Black Culture as well, especially in the 90s. I mean, we’ve had so many different ways of what hair has meant to us in the 90s. There was really only one desirable look, and that was a very long, European, assimilated type of mane, and that’s how you could be considered attractive. So when Sabrina gives the wig to Tiffany, that is her telling her you can step into being a woman now and being sexy and attractive, and this hair is your gateway to that. And the minute that Tiffany puts it on and she starts playing with it like we do when we’re little girls. We put towels on our head and pretend that those towels are long hair, and swing that towel back and forth. That’s something that all Black girls can identify with, doing that when they’re little kids. But it’s all mixed up in the cultural assimilation of being Black in a white space where long straight hair is standard. That’s changing so much now, it has changed so much now, but there’s still a big concentration around that in our hair. So that was really important to have, and that was also true to form in the story. My sister did get me a wig, and it was the entry point to this, this is where you’re sexy, is when you have the long flowing hair. And when you don’t have it, then you’re a little girl or you’re just not you’re not being as attractive, which is ridiculous, but very real. So that wig became Jezebel, really became another entry point for all of that.
AT: The only time Tiffany really breaks down is at the end, where she says she is afraid. Why did you decide other than that to keep the film free from really dramatic events? Because you can really see where it could tip over into something really terrible happening a few times.
NP: Yeah. Well, she also breaks down in a moment of grief in the first scene with the wig, where her sister comforts her. I did it this way for a few reasons. Exercising restraint in my work is very important to me. I’m very vigilant about that. I express that to my actors right away, even down to the fact that we won’t do very many takes. So I let them know to really be prepared, because I don’t want this to become overwrought or overdone in any way. I just feel that it’s so much more powerful when you pull back. And also it’s how we lived our lives then. I feel like it’s more honest. We didn’t live our lives with it, with any type of melodramatic grieving, with any type of melodramatic feeling like a victim. None of that. We just lived our lives day-to-day and hoped for something better, and dreamed of something better, but we weren’t wallowing, we weren’t victims. It was just a circumstance that we were living through, and it’s really important to depict in that way. It was the most honest way to do it. So I remained really vigilant about that throughout, and the team really supported that and got behind that, so we were able to execute it.
AT: Today in the industry, there is another push for diversity and inclusion and it kind of seems like it might stick this time. Do you think it will?
NP: I think it’s going to stick because actual systems are changing. So when you have a system like an inclusion rider, when you have a system like the 4 percent challenge, and I think there needs to be more systems also created. There’s something called the ReFrame Badge now. These things are kind of like a log within our industry, regulations. Like when the unions were created. When when things like that happen and they’re concretized, that’s how you have sustainable change, and I see that happening now. I would like it to happen more and faster. I’m creating a foundation around that that will help more Black women make their first feature films. Because your first feature film is really how you break into a serious career. It’s not the only path, but it’s still a path. It’s a way that the gatekeepers had kept us out like well, they’ve never done a feature before, so how could they ever do a feature? Meanwhile, we’re making short films and web series that deserve the same respect, that we’re putting the same amount of work and creativity into. So if that’s really the ticket, then I’m going to create something that allows more Black women specifically to make the first feature film, because in making my first feature film, I really thought, well, all of the barriers are that are kind of disguised as not being barriers, disguised as ways of helping you. But it’s like a very, very, it’s like helping someone very, very, slowly across the street. (Laughing). It’s like, but you need to get across that intersection, you know, you need to get over there to the other side. And so yeah, I do think it’s going to stick and I think that’s because more people are stepping up with real systems.
AT: And your film also seems to fit right into the context of Me Too. Kind of a new wave of feminism we’re seeing. Do you think it does? There’s also been a very, very, well-earned calling out of the lack of inclusion of the feminist movement. Do you think that’s changing? And do you think you consciously thought it was the right time for this film?
NP: Not at all. I think a voice was telling me that this was the right time and that I need need to hurry up and do it. At the same time, I think that people are kind of afraid, have been afraid of the movie as well, because of that question about agency and exploitation. So it’s really about how the film lands on you. So some people can think that it doesn’t serve the #MeToo movement well at all, because you have one woman pushing another woman into this line of work that could be, and that is, exploitative. But it could also be viewed the way that I’m so happy many are viewing it, as this woman has agency. This is their life, this work is legitimate, and this is how they did it. This is their story. So yeah, I’m really kind of tickled and pleased to see reviews saying you know, that this is an ode to feminism. I’m like, oh, wow, okay. (Laughing) You know, I was not trying to make a feminist film. I was telling a story for me and my sister and for Black women who are living in underbellies of all types of cities across this country who have these really rich stories, mine just happens to be about sex work. But there are still many stories, Black women just living in the underbellies of these cities all across our country and I want to bring more of those to life.
AT: I feel like this question is kind of obligatory. Do you call yourself a feminist?
NP: I don’t call myself a feminist. I’m more of a womanist. It’s funny, it just kind of depends on when you ask me. Because there have been times where I have said, yes, I’m a feminist. I have problems with the lack of intersectionality in feminism. And I think it needs to expand beyond that. So I’m definitely on the team for women. I identify more with womanism, which is more inclusive of Black women and Asian women and Brown women all across the globe where feminism has a lot of times been about white women. Even now, with that realization in place, it still is, it really is, and so it’s hard for me to fully carry that banner. I think the definition of that word needs to expand beyond its current definition.
AT: Can you go into the difference on womanism vs feminism? Because I gotta admit, I’m rather unfamiliar.
NP: So womanism…let me pause a minute because I don’t want to get this wrong, the history behind it. I don’t want to quote this wrong. Give me a second.
AT: Yeah, of course.
NP: I mean, simply stated, it’s beyond white feminism. And it’s hard because it’s more of a theory that deals with our everyday experiences of Black women and it includes the things that we deal with, with race being in the mix. Because we cannot separate ourselves as a Black woman. You can’t separate the Black and the woman, it is one. Whereas in feminism, a lot of white privilege lives inside of feminism. And you will see oh, oh, isn’t this great, so many women were included in this, whatever it is. And it’ll be a majority of white women, and that’s still considered a win for the feminist movement. Meanwhile, you have Black women and other women of color that are being totally left behind and rendered invisible. So womanism has a much larger reach, so I identify more there.
AT: That is so sad that women of color felt so left out of the feminist movement they had to essentially start their own and break off.
NP: Yes. To quote Alice Walker, she said a womanist to feminist is as purple is to lavender. So you’re taking the same concepts, but you’re deepening them and including more of us, especially Black women, but also Brown women, Latino, Asian, all women of color. And yes, it’s true. We are often really left behind. Any movement, I mean even if you go all the way back to the feminist movement, just to get women the right to vote. Black women did not have the right to vote. Native American women did not have the right to vote. But it was considered and still is celebrated as a huge victory that women got the right to vote, But how can it be women if it wasn’t all women?
NP: That’s not even to mention trans women as well. Trans women are finally now being accepted into that conversation as well. Yes, I’ve called myself a feminist in the past, kind of off and on. But there’s always been a level of discomfort to it because I was thinking something more and feeling like I’m claiming to be part of a club that I’m not really a member of. So the more that I learned about womanism, the more I said, oh, you know, maybe this hasn’t caught fire the way that the feminist movement has, but I identify here.
AT: How do you think white women can be kind of allies in like, just making womanism more known, and opening up the feminist movement?
NP: I think some white women are allies, and are very aware of their privilege within this, and are really making sure that when they have an event, everyone is included. There’s a lot of awareness around it now because a lot of people are speaking up about it. I think it’s about caring, just care about it first. Care about it beyond the scope of the people that you interact with every day. Then reach out and read and find out and learn what you can do and be inclusive. Be inclusive, like staple it on your forehead. If you look around and everyone that you’re seeing looks kind of like you, there’s a problem.
AT: Thank you very much. I suppose my last last two questions really, is about what do you hope people take away from your film? And if there’s anything I forgot to ask.
NP: You know, I hope that people take away a very, very, honest love story between sisters, that one sister loved the other so much that she gave her all she had to give, which was her freedom in the way that she knew how. And yes, it’s unusual, it’s unconventional. It’s not what we normally hear about in a family, but it’s valid and it’s beautiful.
AT: Thank you very much for for speaking with me. I honestly feel like I learned more.
NP: Thank you, this has been such a great conversation. I’m happy that you care about my work and that you wanted to write about it.
AT: Thank you. Yeah, I do try. I do try is all I can say. And I appreciate you sharing and being patient being forthright with my questions.
NP: Yes, absolutely.