When I first saw the announcement for Jewel, I was thrilled. An age-gap lesbian romance that tackles urgent social issues ticks every one of my sapphic cinema boxes. Tyra – a middle-aged white photographer from Cape Town – visits the site of the Sharpeville massacre. She’s immediately drawn to a local Black woman, Siya, and hires her as a guide. Jewel has an interesting premise. And Michelle Botes (Tyra) bears more than a passing resemblance to Jessica Lange, my long-term celebrity crush. I was ready to love this film with my heart and soul.
But Jewel is by far the worst lesbian movie I’ve ever watched. In fact, it’s a strong contender for the worst film I’ve ever seen altogether. Why? Because of misogynoir. The word problematic is thrown around too lightly these days, but it perfectly describes the harmful treatment of Black women in this film.
Major spoilers ahead. But that’s alright, because you’re not going to waste a precious moment of your time on earth watching this dumpster fire. I suffered so you don’t have to.
There are few more painful histories than that of apartheid South Africa. It was a system of violent white supremacy, where the state enforced racial segregation. Black people were literally second-class citizens. The African National Congress Party was banned, denying Black people political representation. Black South Africans were refused the right to own property, and kept in desperate poverty. And interracial marriages were criminalized.
Apartheid is a sensitive subject. Yet Jewel handles its legacy with all the finesse of a bull rampaging through a china shop. This depiction of interracial love is fundamentally exploitative and dehumanizing to Black women.
Siya is subjected to the male gaze, objectified and controlled by her boyfriend Tshepo. She is subjected to the white gaze through the relentless click click of Tyra’s camera. But Siya is never permitted to define herself; to live or love on her own terms. Tshepo denies her agency by ending any future Siya might have that doesn’t revolve around him, any relationship beyond their love. And Tyra too makes choices on Siya’s behalf, infantilising her and forcing a connection.
Tyra and Tshepo might be enemies, but their treatment of Siya is very similar. This is because she exists as a symbol in the minds of her lovers. To Tshepo, she affirms his masculinity and position in a patriarchal society. To Tyra, Siya represents spiritual healing; a redemption of sorts for her father’s racist violence. Tshepo sees Siya as his property. Tyra sees Siya as a fantasy. And in their own way they both want to own her.
Tshepo is a violent misogynist, attacking and killing any woman who stands in the way of his agenda: owning Siya. But Tyra isn’t exactly a better partner for Siya. That relationship is built on a foundation of racism. Jewel isn’t a story about love; it’s a story about possession.
Tyra snaps photo after photo without the consent of her subjects; she has a boundless entitlement towards Black people. Even after Siya explicitly asks her to stop, Tyra persists. She also shows up at Siya’s house uninvited on two separate occasions, befriending Siya’s grandmother to better manipulate her. Disregard for consent and boundaries are both massive red flags when it comes to relationships. Just because this story is about two women does not make that behaviour legitimate.
And then – without having asked Siya whether she’s interested in relocating her life, leaving her diabetic grandmother, and starting a new career – Tyra suggests that Siya should move to Cape Town and model. For her.
There’s plenty of feminist writing debunking the sexism of a muse – a passive, beautiful woman whose objectification by male artists inspires their creative ‘genius.’ And that’s exactly the same dodgy dynamic Tyra wants to recreate with Siya. It’s impossible to ship these characters together when the relationship is fundamentally exploitative. Tyra uses the socioeconomic power imbalance between her and Siya to gain the upper hand in a way that would rightly be recognised as deeply uncomfortable if she were a white man.
Jewel offers a chaotic attempt at social commentary that causes more harm than it addresses. And the plot doesn’t even make sense. Why would Tshepo kill Siya’s grandmother – a member of his own community – when it only makes Siya despise him? His hatred of Tyra came from a resentment of the white oppressor class and, though his violence against her is wrong, it at least carries a certain narrative logic.
Though he’s the villain of this story, I also take issue with how Tshepo was written. Given the abundance of racist stereotyping about Black man being inherently dangerous and savage, it is disappointing that the South African creative team behind Jewel chose to depict this character as a senseless killer, violent for the sake of being violent.
Jewel has an abundance of problems. And very few redeeming qualities. There’s no subtlety to the dialogue, which is heavy on exposition. Tyra’s exploitative and entitled behavior are legitimized through themes of fate and destiny. After a character is killed off, they appear again at the end.
Netflix also goofed the film’s description, calling Jewel “romance.” This was a huge mistake. It creates a set of expectations which this film doesn’t meet. A romance, by definition, involves a Happily Ever After – or at least a Happy For Now. Any love story without the HEA is exactly that; a love story.
But Tyra doesn’t even love Siya – just the fantasy of her. They know each other for all of two days. As Disney’s Frozen points out, you can’t love someone you just met. A cartoon musical fantasy film for children offers more insightful social commentary than Jewel does. And framing a white woman’s exploitation of a Black woman as love takes us into dangerous territory.
Jewel is now streaming on Netflix. (But don’t watch this movie. Seriously. Pick anything else.)
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