Artist. Producer. Director. Writer. Mother. Sister. Community Builder. When Shadow And Act caught up with Numa Perrier in Austin at South By Southwest, these were just a few of the hats we covered. By all accounts, she’s a busy woman. Fresh off the successful premiere of her first feature, Jezebel, Perrier is already working on the next thing. Ava DuVernay announced last week that the fourth season of her hit OWN show Queen Sugar is filming once again with a slate of all-women directors--and Perrier is one of them. In short: it’s an exciting time for the Haitian-American director. Jezebel is just the beginning.
Set in Las Vegas in 1998, the film is a semi-autobiographical take on Perrier’s own experiences being a camgirl (a webcam sex worker) while living in Sin City. When Jezebel begins, we follow nineteen year-old Tiffany (Tiffany Tenille) as she struggles to find her place in a cramped studio apartment with her older sister Sabrina (Perrier), her sister’s boyfriend, her older brother and youngest sister. In the aftermath of their mother’s death, Sabrina introduces Tiffany to camgirl work as a means to an end. And why not? Sabrina herself is a phone sex operator, carrying the bills of the household with her late night sessions. What transpires is, as Perrier once put it, a “bizarre,” complex, coming-of-age adventure into the relationship between sex work, personal entanglements and the realities of poverty in a city known for profiting off of “sin” at every turn.
To construct this world, Perrier leaned into Vegas’ outskirts, where a lack of development, entrepreneurial spirit, and hard times still exist.
“I always wanted the film to have a dual tonality to it," she told Shadow And Act. “The apartment scenes were really important [because] we were able to shoot in my old apartment building. [Which is great because] in Las Vegas, nothing changes, it’s like a time warp. Unless you’re on The Strip. Everything outside of that, nobody puts money into it. There’s places where you can still play penny slots and nickel slots. And so there’s this entire culture that is skeevy! It’s a skeevy-ass city!”
This luck lent the film a type of authenticity that was right in line with Perrier’s division of space between Tiffany’s home life and her work life.
“It was so lovely to have that same building because it didn’t appear that they had changed [anything.] So to look at the film, the apartment feels shadowy and claustrophobic, because it is. But every time we open the door, we let in the garrish sunlight of Las Vegas. [And] when you go into the chat room interiors, it was important to have that fluorescent, fantasy out-of-this-world feeling. I always wanted [the film] to bounce between those spaces.”
Jezebel fits into a growing niche--and legacy--of telling Black women’s stories from new and important angles. From Shadow And Act RISING Award winner Nijla Mumin’s Jinn to Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency, to older stories like Kasi Lemmons' Eve's Bayou and Leslie Harris’ Just Another Girl on The IRT, Black women take front stage in vulnerable and interesting narratives that shine varying lights on their humanity. In a film about sex work that features erotic moments, Perrier’s direction provides Jezebel with a deft balance between absurdity, luridness and introspection. At times, Tiffany’s sexuality and power fantasies are awakened by her exploration of her camgirl persona. Conversely, she tempts fate with her dalliances, always just a step or two away from some greater danger. Amid it all, Perrier places the viewer right in the middle of it all as a voyeur, indulging our need for story, but always teasing our access in ways that direct our attention and challenge our assumptions.
“There’s no nudity in the film, and that was on purpose. I wanted to create the sense of you don’t know what’s about to happen next but you know something more dangerous can happen; something more explicit could happen; something more risky can happen the entire time. I wanted the audience to also feel like they're being brought close to something but not touching it or not seeing it.”
This dynamic ultimately shapes our understanding of not just Tiffany, but her older sister’s own predicament, and sensuality. Which isn’t an accident—in preparation for the film, Perrier had to approach, study and engage her own sister to be true-to-life as Sabrina. Through the process, she ended up having more breakthroughs than she initially expected.
“My sister and I were estranged for a time after [we both] left Las Vegas. I think we were both really just trying to get our lives on track the way we wanted it to go. [But] we started missing each other, [and] we kind of came back around to each other. She told me that she wanted to support a project of mine. And I said, ‘Well, I want to make a film about our time together in Las Vegas.’ We had not talked about it in my 10 years, when I [started] talked about it then. And she agreed immediately. She said, ‘okay.’
“So then I tell her I also want to play her in the movie, [and] she says, 'okay!' So not only is our relationship back on track, it's deeper than it's ever been. I understand her. I believe our love for each other has deepened. I've never been supported in this way by anyone in my life. [And] I realized how much she's always been supporting me and protecting me my entire life.”
Tiffany Tenille as Tiffany, confronting her manager in a scene from the 2019 coming-of-age film, Jezebel. Courtesy of House of Numa.
One conversation in particular was the flashpoint for this new milestone in their relationship. When working on her character, Perrier asked her sister an introductory question of intent: “What was the main thing that was driving you, [that] you were think about every day?” The answer? “Just to get the rent paid every Friday.” This shook Perrier and altered her understanding of not just Sabrina, but her intent as a director.
“When she said that to me, it hit me so hard. It was just wild. To direct Tiffany playing me had me realizing like, whatever it was, I wasn’t the only one going through that shit. You know, my sister was the one carrying the most burden of all of us, she was the only one making any money. Of course, she pushed me into something, you know, to go get out there and make some money and get off of her back, but to also get my life started.”
This push from the proverbial nest could be perceived as both an act of self-protection and selflessness. While Sabrina works to keep the rest of her family fed and fulfilled, she is also grieving in her own way. While the funeral itself is never shown, the sisters’ mother casts a long emotional shadow on the film, informing our understanding of their choices and their tribulations. For Sabrina, becoming a de facto mother to all leaves her drained but also, perhaps perversely, delighted. For Tiffany, losing one mother is almost as hard as being (seemingly) rejected by a surrogate. The constant tension between the two as these roles play out adds complexity to the film in ways that are sharp in their impact and intent.
And ultimately, they help make up the heart of Jezebel. For, while we spend a ton of time in Tiffany’s (unorthodox to some) workplace, what ties the story together is the relationship of the two sisters: loving, grieving and living. If nothing else, this piece of truth was of the utmost importance for Perrier to get across.
“In [Black] culture, we have a collective grief," Perrier said.“We have to do what we do every day. It's still trying to find some happiness, and humor, and fun and relationships and step in the midst of it. But we're constantly in a state of grief. I don't know any Black person who's not grieving something.”
Despite this, Perrier refuses to back down from the challenges of creative life, or honestly, anything else. With her production company, House of Numa, and the help of people in her tribe like Jezebel producer Winter Dunn, she hopes to build a foundation that builds fellow Black women filmmakers up in a often hostile industry.
“I want it to be a million dollar foundation, and it will allow for Black women to make their first feature a year. So every quarter, a Black woman will get $250,000 to make their first feature. That's a micro budget. But a lot of these scripts can be done on a micro budget; [Jezebel] was definitely done on a micro budget. And when you think about it, the feature film is not the only ticket. But it's still the big ticket to launching your career or whatever it is you want to do. Because people see your signature and your voice in a real way, and you have actual property that you can market in a bigger way, that you can take to the market in a bigger way. That's how I'm going out and pitching it.”
For Perrier, it's a matter of urgency.
“I learned so much out of going through the whole, machine-pitch thing. All of them are good, but they move too slow and not enough of us get through. It [can’t be] a pipeline that's like, the eye of the needle. And, we're not gonna get through it that way. No one has time. We don’t have the time for this to now be like, ‘well, in three generations, [things will be better.]' This isn't Neanderthal-caveman human development or whatever. We need to get this stuff moving.”
Malik Adán is a film and media critic. His words have landed at FilmThreat and REELYDOPE. A lover of food and most genre entries, his tastes are as broad as his afro. His work can be found on Rotten Tomatoes, malikadan.com or in the moment on Twitter @dapisdope.