Movie Review: Jezebel

Refreshingly honest film about sex work opens the Black Femme Supremacy Film Fest

The Black Femme Supremacy Film Fest is coming to the Parkway Theatre this weekend, kicking off this Friday night with a screening of Jezebel, followed by a Q&A with writer/director and co-star Numa Perrier. (Back when the an all-shorts version of BFS Film Fest was at the Creative Alliance, we wrote about it here.) Below is my review of the opening night title.

Reading the plot synopsis of Jezebel, you might think it’s a tragedy: After the death of her mother, a 19-year-old woman is forced to become an online sex worker to make ends meet. But Jezebel, which is a semi-autobiographical account of writer-director Numa Perrier’s own life, is actually full of wit and candor, and it has a very matter-of-fact (and sometimes even joyful) approach to the work that young Tiffany (an excellent Tiffany Tenile) does.

When we first meet Tiffany, she’s living in a cramped apartment with her older sister Sabrina (played by Perrier), her brother, her young niece, and Sabrina’s layabout boyfriend (Bobby Field). Sabrina herself is a phone sex operator, which can be a bit awkward in the small space (the walls aren’t soundproof). So when their mother, whom we never meet, dies in hospice care, it’s time for Tiffany to do her part. Sabrina finds an ad for online sex workers—basically a live streaming video chat room, where women take off their clothing and writhe around on a mattress for the titillation of watching men who pay by the minute—and tells Tiffany to sign up. She even gifts Tiffany a long wig—named “the Jezebel”—and instead of being disgusted or scared, Tiffany proudly sports the wig, feeling somewhat empowered by this new mane of hair.

She goes to the address in the ad and is met by Chuck, a bland-looking type who runs the operation with his sister, who is also a sex worker. The apartment where the business is headquartered is a little seedy, but not dangerously so. What makes the whole thing funny is how normal it all is: Chuck could literally be a middle manager at a Walmart. Tiffany chooses the name Jezebel and is on her way. She finds that some of the men don’t even want simulated sex—they just want conversation or physical manifestations of whatever fetish they might possess. (One sex worker is told to lie back on the bed and literally do nothing for the duration of her session; she often falls asleep.) Tiffany gets a regular customer named Bobby (Brett Gelman), who likes to be dominated and has a foot fetish. Tiffany actually is fond of him.

Jezebel is not without its flaws. It’s not particularly good at masking its low budget. The film has an unfortunate habit of announcing that people are off to do something—visiting mom at the hospice, going to the laundromat, etc.—and then cutting directly to a scene of them returning to the apartment. But Jezebel feels authentic, because it is: a different kind of coming-of-age film and a non-judgmental look at an industry that is often shrouded in secrecy. So does Tiffany emerge unscathed from this chapter of her life? Well, based on this promising debut by Perrier, it seems she did more than survive, she thrived.