Jezebel opens with the seductive purr of a woman's voice. "Go ahead," Numa Perrier groans into the phone, twirling the phone cord between her fingers. "Stroke it faster. Faster." Less than a minute into the indie film, there is no mistaking what the movie is about. We're talking about sex, people.
But don't get turned off by the opening, says the actress, who also wrote and directed the film. She entreats viewers to take in each moment of the hour and 25-minute long production with sensitivity and nuance because Jezebel isn't just a movie — it's a personal look into what she describes as one of the most transformative periods of her life.
Jezebel tells the true story of a young Perrier's journey towards womanhood, facilitated by her introduction to the cam girl industry in 1990s Las Vegas. In the film, a young girl (Tiffany Tenille) navigates the fledgling cam girl industry at the encouragement of her sister Sabrina (Perrier), learning about the complicated intersections of of race, gender, and class along the way.
The tale is taken right from a precious chapter in the auteur's life. As a young woman, she spent a year in Las Vegas and lived under one roof with her sister, her sister's boyfriend, their son, and her brother. There in that full house of five, Perrier had a front row seat to her sister's fascinating career as a phone sex operator.
"She would log on the phone for her shifts, and we would either leave or just hear her in background," the quadruple threat told Refinery29. "It was funny because it was weird and gross but also interesting in an odd way. It was normal for us, but obviously a bizarre circumstance."
The family gathered together in their Las Vegas home (which Perrier affectionate referred to a "halfway house") after their mother became gravely ill from complications with diabetes. As they worried about the fate of their family, the matriarch succumbed to her illness, leaving her daughters to take their survival into their own hands.
"My sister gave me the talk like, 'Hey, you gotta figure out what you're doing with yourself. You can't stay in this apartment forever'. And that's when she handed me the classified ad that was for internet modelling."
Neither Perrier nor her older sister knew what "internet modelling" meant — it was, after all, the 90s, and the family didn't have easy access to the technology in their home — but having made other friends in the industry, her sister urged her to pursue the gig. Perrier got hired on the spot, discovering that she was the only black girl employed at the adult establishment. What followed her first day on the job was a whirlwind of sexual discovery and female empowerment, with the cam girl leaning into her agency as a sex worker more and more as the days passed.
Long after she left Las Vegas to pursue a career in Hollywood, Perrier held on to that chapter in her life knowing that it would make a great film someday. But she held off, choosing to busy herself with other projects in the meantime. Perrier connected with fellow creative Dennis Dortch, and together, they founded the production company and network Black & Sexy TV.
As a network, BSTV would produce some of the most beloved black web series on the internet. Some of its most popular titles included Roomieloverfriends, Hello Cupid, and Sexless, and many of the network's stars went on to star in major television in film productions; actors like Ashley Blaine Featherson of Dear White People and Andra Fuller from Netflix's You Can't Fight Christmas initially found fame on Black & Sexy TV.
When the collaboration ended suddenly in 2017, Perrier decided to pivot back to her year in Las Vegas. But going public with that time in her life turned out to be more frightening than she had anticipated. "I was so nervous," she admitted. "Doing the job, I didn't feel ashamed. But I felt that if I told someone, they would shame me. So for that reason, I didn't tell anyone and kept it a secret."
It took her years to finally find the courage to write down her story, but even as Perrier put pen to paper, she had trouble admitting aloud that the script was taken from her personal experience — she initially changed all of the characters' names and told everyone who read the script that it was just a story. It wasn't until she was accepted into Through Her Lens (an initiative associated with the Tribeca Chanel Women's Filmmaker Program dedicated to providing funding and mentorship for aspiring women writers and directors) that Perrier finally felt comfortable enough open up about the subject matter that inspired Jezebel.
"It was thanks to a group of women at the Tribeca Film Institute who were mentoring me in the Through Her Lens program," said Perrier. "I finally confessed on day three that it was my true story."
The reception to Perrier's confession and her 15-page script was overwhelmingly positive, with the women in the program applauding her candour. "Everyone said, 'Oh my gosh, Numa, you have to say that. That changes everything. It gives us a new context of why you deserve to tell this story and how authentic this is.' "
"I was able to go deeper with the writing, with the directing, with every detail to make it richer and fuller. It was the best decision."
Armed with confidence and a new fire for storytelling, Perrier moved forward with the project. For the first time ever in her career, the actress and writer stepped into the director's seat, taking her small cast and crew back to where it all happened in Las Vegas. There, they shot Jezebel in 10 short days.
The feedback for the film, which premiered at Austin's South by Southwest festival in 2019 through the machinations of Ava DuVernay's independent distribution company, ARRAY Releasing, has been glowingly positive, and for good reason. Jezebel is a textured and carefully constructed film that manages to make an extremely personal story into a relatable and thought-provoking narrative. And its creator hopes that it will add nuance to the way black women are viewed (and view themselves) in media.
"I want audiences to see black women in a new and intimate way in film," said Perrier. "I want for black women, in particular, to see ourselves in these quiet, beautiful moments in a movie that matters and gets a wide release. I want us to fall in love with that."
Jezebel is now available for streaming on Netflix.