Like many populations, people who work in the sex work industry have not had received the best on-screen treatment in cinema. Typically, sex workers exist to be used as either visual shorthand for people who can’t be trusted or as go-to sources for corpses in crime thrillers. Rarely do people working in this profession get to be seen as human beings with their own lives, perspectives and stories to tell. There have been some exceptions to these depressing trends in recent years thanks to titles like Tangerine, Cam or the new release Jezebel. All of these films allow sex workers to take the role of the protagonist while sidestepping the dehumanizing cliches associated with traditional cinematic depictions of sex workers.
In the case of Jezebel, the lead character is Tiffany (Tiffany Tennille), a nineteen-year-old in 1999 who lives in a small apartment with her siblings, niece and her sister’s boyfriend. It’s far from an ideal living situation and her life gets even messier once her Mom passes away. This tragic passing spurs Tiffany’s sister, Sabrina (Numa Perrier, who also writes and directs Jezebel), to encourage Tiffany to find a job where she can earn steady income. Where could she find that kind of job? Well, Sabrina, who works on a phone sex line, shows Tiffany a job listing for an online cam site that needs women performers. Perhaps Tiffany could take a cue from her sister and work in this industry to earn some cash.
From here, Tiffany begins to perform on a website under the name Jezebel. Right away, Jezebel begins to deviate from norms of how sex work is typically depicted in cinema by refusing to inherently code Tiffany’s newfound occupation as lowly or detestable. Instead, it’s shown to be a place to make money and one that fills Tiffany with a sense of confidence that she previously struggled to regularly obtain when her mind was focused on scrounging up enough money to pay the bills. Her job is eventually shown to have issues, but not because it’s a place in the sex work industry. Instead, the problems come from Tiffany’s white co-workers and superiors refusing to doing anything about racist comments on this cam site.
It’s a move that echoes how minority groups struggle to get sites like Facebook or Twitter to take racism remotely seriously in the modern world, The world wide web is a fresh new invention in 1999, but it’s already a breeding ground for the kind of bigotry, as well as the minimizing of that bigotry from white people, all too familiar to people of color. That approach to Tiffany struggling to have her humanity as a woman of color valued by the people around her as well as the more nuanced approach to sex work are two of the best flourishes in Numa Perrier’s screenplay, which is based on Perrier’s own experiences working as a cam girl in the late 90’s.
Perrier drawing on her own experiences to tell the tale of Tiffany helps to lend Jezebel a sense of specific identity. This is especially true of sequences focused on intimate conversations between Tiffany and Sabrina. It’s impressive how deftly Perrier’s writing manages to cram so many different emotional experiences into their individual exchanges, they can go from happy to sad to thrilled and everything in between in the span of a few sentences. Speaking from experience with my own siblings, it feels so authentic to the all-over-the-map manner in which brothers and sisters communicate with each other. Plus, on its own merits, the multitude of emotions explored in these conversations is plenty moving, particularly the ending of a sequence where Sabrina joyfully gives Tiffany a makeover for her new job that concludes with Tiffany breaking down and crying over the recent passing of their mother.
The camerawork by Perrier and cinematographer Brent Johnson is especially critical for why this scene is as affecting as it is, there’s such an intimate quality to the way they capture Tiffany going from hopeful to sorrowful in such a short span of time. Other pieces of the camerawork, editing and especially certain music cues are far less distinctive than that aforementioned poignant sequence between sisters. However, much of Jezebel is memorably unique and imbuing the proceedings with such distinct traits helps the characters to come alive as people. Instead of being bound in by the traditional cinematic stereotypes for sex workers, the characters of Jezebel burst forth as their own fully-formed creations.