Writer, producer, actress, and director Numa Perrier is having a good year. She recently directed an episode of Queen Sugar, Ava DuVernay’s evocative family drama, and Jezebel, her debut feature film, earned widespread critical acclaim after premiering at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March. Jezebel, based on Perrier’s experiences working as a cam girl, is a sensitive, mesmerizing, and intelligent portrayal of sex work. Jezebel plunges audiences head-first into the realities of life for 19-year-old Jezebel (promising newcomer Tiffany Tenille), the only Black woman on call who’s navigating workplace politics while couch-surfing at her older sister Sabrina’s (played by Perrier) overpopulated Las Vegas apartment.
Perrier’s story of sexual awakening and self-realization is gritty and realistic without ever turning its Black women characters into victims. It’s a refreshingly authentic approach that underscores the need for creative people of color to have their stories told. Bitch spoke with Perrier about her first feature, the need to destigmatize sex work, and how the film industry can better support Black women and women of color.
Jezebel is a balancing act of so many elements: sisterhood, sexuality, power, trauma, grief. The story is so dense and it all feels tethered to the experience of being a Black woman. Why did you choose this particular experience for your first feature?
I chose it because it was the defining moment as I crossed from girlhood to womanhood. [That time] reminds me [of] who I am, what I like sexually, why I’ve chosen certain relationships, [and] why intimacy is important to me. I was merging into a woman—and I was doing it without a mother. I was doing it with my sister who was also without a mother. We were mothering ourselves and she was mothering me. What’s the initiation process for that? Even before my mother—who adopted me and who was a white woman—died there was this disconnect. There was a connection for sure, but there was always a disconnection, a fragmented relationship, a cultural divide, and a whole space I had to figure out for myself. So after she passed, the next person that was there was my sister. She figured out her life in her own way, and those were the tools that she gave me. It was a pivotal moment in my life.
Jezebel is such a unique work. I can’t think of another film that tells a story like it, but I was often reminded of the urban realism of Sean Baker’s Tangerine and Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. Who or what influenced you to make this movie?
I actually love both of those filmmakers. I love Tangerine and I love Fish Tank. Those were not films I was thinking about at all, but maybe they were there subconsciously. Raising Victor Vargas is one film that’s always stuck with me. I thought about [it] a lot in terms of the family dynamic, of many people living in a small place. There’s a lot of handheld shots; its hot [and] it’s a summer movie. That’s a reference I was thinking about in terms of the family and capturing the heat.
Jezebel is a movie about sex work, but it’s not pessimistic or tragic. How conscious were you of this while writing the script? Did that come easily to you since you understand the nuances of that experience?
It came easily, but I was also very conscious [about] what I was doing. In directing Tiffany [Tenille], it was important to convey to her the layers, the playfulness and curiosity, the hopefulness of getting a big check every week. [Sex work] plays with questions of consent. You sometimes wonder, “[Am I] being coerced into this?” At the end of the day, however, you’re the one that needs to fill out the paperwork. It requires you to clock in and clock out. There’s a blue-collar reality to it.
I didn’t feel victimized by being a cam girl. There were bad days and I had complaints, but I wasn’t a victim. There are difficulties [associated with] exotic dancing and stripping, but some of them love it. They love the beauty of dancing on that pole, the music, [and] the instant cash. It’s a reality that’s not shown because more people would do it. More women would realize it’s not as bad as it seems. Maybe they would try it. Then it would be harder to control women.
This is Tenille’s breakout role.
Yes. I saw her work in a short film called Roboto. She was playing the love interest of the lead in the film, and there’s this scene where she’s coming out of the water with these long beautiful braids, walking on the beach—the energy she brought was beautiful. That feeling of “I know what I’m doing” but there [was also] this vulnerability to her. When we finally met, I only had 15 pages [of the script], and I told her, it’s going to go into some more erotic places. This is just the prologue, and then you’ll have this whole sexual awakening. [Tenille] was excited to take it on. There was a real willingness and boldness on her part.
In the Q&A after the 2019 premiere at South by Southwest, you said you shot the film in 10 days.
That’s right, five days in Las Vegas and five days in Los Angeles. We did all the apartment scenes in Las Vegas because we secured the same building I lived in once upon a time. And I couldn’t afford to keep everyone in Vegas for the remainder of the shoot, so we took a hiatus while I found a location in LA, and that’s where we filmed all the chat room stuff.
I imagine there was very little room for mistakes. Did you have to adjust the script?
There were very few script adjustments because I’m a producer too. I wrote it in a way that I knew we could film it. I’m a very economical director. I told the actors up front, “You’re not gonna get a lot of takes. We’re not gonna have time to reset this.” We had no makeup team to make sure things looked the same if we shot things at different times. That was challenging, but it also gave the film rawness and an extra authenticity. The chatroom scenes you didn’t see from many angles because I wanted to convey the sense of being on one side of the computer screen.
You’re currently on location in New Orleans for Queen Sugar. How did you become involved?
I’ve known Ava [DuVernay] [since] she was a publicist making her first feature film I Will Follow. She’s been in my peer group of Black women filmmakers [who are] making short films, and Ava was the first one of us to make a feature film. I witnessed her doing that from afar and saw how much it fueled her career. I reached out to her when I was crowdfunding [for Jezebel], and she said she’d tweet the page for me. And she didn’t just tweet; she said some kind things about me, referred to me as a new member of the tribe that’s coming in. A flood of new people came through right away. Once we got into South by Southwest, she [invited] me to direct an episode. It wasn’t just a professional invitation; she said some really kind things about reaffirming our sisterhood. It was personal, and it brought me to tears.
In my experience as a woman of color working in the arts, some of the biggest help comes from other women and other women of color in particular. I know that something like a retweet or a kind word on social media might seem small, but it’s a huge boost.
It might seem small, but they’re building blocks. They’re all adding up to something bigger. When I think about what’s happening right now [in my career], I can point to many women, many Black women, and many marginalized women [who] made sure that I didn’t give up, who made sure they connected me to a person, who made sure they got my film in front of other people, [and who] gave me money.
I didn’t feel victimized by being a cam girl. There were bad days and I had complaints, but I wasn’t a victim.
You have a track record of supporting other Black creators. I’m thinking about your production company, House of Numa, and your work on Sexy+Black TV. Tell us more about your work on that side of things.
In the process of making my own movie, I applied for grants and I did the Tribeca Institute, which was great and valuable, but I didn’t walk [away] with much money. I’m on the search now for a venture partner to create a grant for Black women filmmakers that would award them $250,000 to make their first feature film. A [micro-budget is] a way for filmmakers to enter the space that I’m in now, which is being taken more seriously, being able to move forward in [my] career, and [being able to] get these stories out.
Everyone who is trying to make a movie is trying to find money and it’s hard, but it’s harder for certain people. I know how to identify scripts that can work on micro-budgets so I know this sort of project can yield results. When you go to film festivals and you hear, “Oh there’s no work by Black women,” to an extent it’s true. But that’s because so many of us aren’t able to make our first features because it requires money. So how do we get more Black and Brown women to make their first features? We got to give them money. That’s the only answer.
Do you have any passion projects on the back burner? What’s next?
I’m working on it now! My next feature is called Blood Mother. It’s about my adoption, and it’s a thriller! I don’t want to say too much about it, but it will be about the circumstances surrounding my adoption.