If you haven’t streamed the film Jezebel on Netflix yet, you are truly missing out.
This little indie film backed by Ava DuVernay’s distribution company ARRAY is a true gem that explores young Black girlhood and sexual exploration. Directed by Queen Sugar director Numa Perrier, the story, inspired by Perrier’s life, centers on Tiffany (Tiffany Tenille), a teenager who finds herself at a crossroads. After her mother’s death, it’s time for the naive 19-year-old to grow up and start contributing to the household with hopes of helping out her family, but also gaining her own independence. But it’s Las Vegas in the 90s and for Tiffany, there aren’t a lot of options, so her older sister Sabrina and phone sex operator (also played by Perrier) nudges her to enter this new seedy world of an Internet cam girl.
As I wrote for ZORA, while the film “depicts the days and nights of a cam girl who simulates sex for lustful old men, there’s not an ounce of nudity. But nakedness is not necessary for the characters to be exposed.” Shot in a mere 10 days on a microbudget, Jezebel is a powerful story that pushes back against stereotypes about Black female sexuality and sex work and also highlights our autonomy and ability to make it work with limited resources.
Most importantly, watching the film unfold, it’s clear that Tenille, who was the first and only actress offered the role, is the heart of the film and I couldn’t imagine anyone else as Tiffany. Hands down, Tenille delivers one of the most memorable and authentic performances of the year, which isn’t too shabby for her feature film debut.
Back in January at ARRAY’s headquarters in Los Angeles, Tenille shared with me that when she read the script for the first time, she was excited, but also nervous.
“I was reading it, and I saw the words ‘Jezebel’ on the script’ and it was ‘Oh my goodness, what is this?!” she joked. “I grew up in the church, so I was nervous about what my mother was going to say. But I couldn’t say no. It was just so compelling.”
In order to play such a naïve role, Tenille also shared that Perrier told her from jump that she couldn’t wear any makeup, which for the contour-loving gal, was hard to hear at first. Weeks later, something about that tidbit stuck with me, so I followed up with the Chicago-native again to talk even more about playing Tiffany, how being barefaced for the film taught her how to appreciate her natural features and how she experienced her own sexual awakening while filming Jezebel.
Kellee Terrell: So the last time we spoke, you shared that you had to be barefaced for most of the film. Given you love a beat face, that must have been a lot! [Laughs]
Tiffany Tenille: For me, not wearing makeup was a form of nakedness, exposing myself and baring it all. In our initial meeting, Numa told me, ‘You’re gonna have to lose all the frills. No makeup, no lashes. I may allow you to wear chapstick.” Meanwhile, I came to the first meeting BEAT to the Gods! [Laughs]
It was daunting at first. I love to play in makeup, but it wasn’t until after the film did I realize that I didn’t need to wear all that. I started to see that it was a form of a mask for me to hide myself and all of my imperfections. This way, I really just came to see myself, my face, for what it actually is naturally, not the caked up version of myself.
KT: And with no contour!
TT: Exactly! This was the first time since I was a teenager, my nose wasn’t contoured. This was the first time that as an adult that I had to see that wideness, my features for what they are. I thought contouring was something you had to do, you know get those more European features. I would never walk out of the house like that before, but for this role, I was going to honor Numa and take on this challenge.
KT: Let’s talk about your hair. You teetered from rocking your natural hair to the wigs Tiffany wore for the website.
TT: This was also eye-opening because I saw the beauty of my natural 4C hair too! You saw my edges out there, you can’t see a lot of gel. [Laughs[. And then there was the wig itself, which people talk about how bad the wigs are, but that’s the story, that’s the point. We’re so used to seeing women with these glossed up wigs that we can’t always appreciate when the hair is more realistic. For me, it was about coming into those scenes with a level of truthfulness. Go in raggedy as Tiffany, because that’s the character’s journey. It was liberating and truly transformative.
KT: So you’re makeup-free Alicia Keys-style now? [Laughs]
TT: Don’t get it twisted. When it’s time for me to get into Tiffany Tennile mode, I will do it up! And I also want to be clear that I’m not judging anyone for wanting to get dressed up or contour or anything. I just want for other women to love themselves in their purest form too because that’s another level of power.
KT: How did you prepare for this role? What was your inspiration?
TT: For me, the main source of research was just the inspiration of the story which was Numa’s life. She was adopted, I was adopted. Her government name was Tiffany, my name is Tiffany. Our birthdays are days apart and we both had feelings of being abandoned as a child and not seen. So I just pulled a lot of my own self with Numa into this.
KT: I remember you saying that you didn’t want to do too much research about the early days on Internet sex work. Why?
TT: I didn’t want to be too much of an expert on the topic. I wanted for me and Tiffany to both have that coming-of-age experience together. I wanted that to come off as authentic as possible.
Now I did prepare to be her and live in her a world a bit. Prior to shooting, I started wearing my hair is twist outs, listening to a lot of 90s music, a lot of Janet Jackson, and wore a lot of scrunchies. [Laughs]. I found the Walkman in the movie and looked for some of my clothes too. We basically shot the film in 10 days, so there wasn’t a lot of time for prep, so I was doing everything I could on my end as an actress to that work before we all got on set. I was so excited! It’s funny, because, in the first scene, I was pushing, being extra Numa was like no on, you don’t have to prove yourself, just live in it. And I did.
Numa is so wonderful because we both came together to become sisters on and off-screen. She even made me wear this roller in my hair because she used to and wanted honor that specificity.
KT: You’ve been in some fantastic short films such as Roubodo, but this is your first feature film role…and you’re fantastic. For a young Black actress to be cast as the lead in such a nuanced role, that must have been a serious confidence boost.
TT: When I was in college [at DePaul University in Chicago], I was playing everybody’s mama and I would ask why my teacher couldn’t I play the starlet or the ingénue? And he told me that in the real world I wasn’t going to be offered those types of roles. I would get the best friend, but look at me now!
I already knew I was going to be something, despite what he had to say.
KT: It’s frustrating because often times white folks aren’t comfortable with Black women demanding to be the focal point or not being satisfied to be on the periphery. Good for you for knowing your worth.
TT: Thank you! I think knowing that is helpful. Jezebel is also about Tiffany navigating her worth and that’s everything to me. That’s a powerful thing.
In my career, I have turned down so many opportunities and roles because they were just too stereotypical. Someone once told me that how you get into this business is how people remember you. So, I want to be remembered for something monumental, and I really believe that Jezebel will be a staple of the Black film canon.
I can’t even say enough of how proud I am to be in a film that showcases Black women in a vulnerable tender state. There is strength in our vulnerability and I wanted to show us in a different light. So often, we have to be so strong and carry someone’s weight and suppress our own needs, tenderness and vulnerability.
KT: Given your background, how did playing Tiffany awake something in your sexuality?
TT: I realized that I used to be afraid to express my own sexuality out of not wanting to perpetuate that trope about Black women’s sexuality, that Jezebel. Also, as a teenager, grown men would catcall at me and my friends, so that made self-conscious of my sexuality and what I was wearing. Then being a church girl, you wouldn’t even see me in pictures, having anything on too tight.
I think about She’s Gotta Have It and how Nola was talking about how just because as women we wear a certain thing doesn’t mean that’s an invitation to be hit on or raped you know? But we carry all of those things with us when we think about our own sexuality. So for me, it was very cathartic to step into my sexuality and embrace it. Now, I stand in my power.
I just love flirting with the camera and I enjoyed having this sexual awakening with this character. I had a lot of fun, so much so that in that scene where I put my wig on fo the first time, Numa was like reel it back. [Laughs]. Now, I look at my stretch marks and my tummy, our curves are our superpowers! I hope that other women can embrace their sexuality and do so without society judging us thinking we’re hypersexed or less than.
KT: How did playing a sex worker change your mind about the profession?
TT: Sex workers are doing honorable work and it’s a way for many women to survive and a lot of women love what they do. Granted, I am not talking about sex trafficking or underage sex work, but I am referring to of-age consenting women who enjoy their work but also deal with inequality and racism like any other Black women in their jobs. It’s complicated and needs to be regulated like they have done in New York.
I only hope I did this role justice.
KT: What do you hope people take away from the film?
TT: I want audiences to walk away with a new sense of sensuality and appreciation of their own sexuality. That, and a new paradigm about how they perceive sex workers.
KT: Finally, what’s next for you?
TT: There are some offers floating out there, and it’s getting good, it’s happening. I really feel it happening.