Review: ‘Haunted Mansion’ (2023), starring LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson, Jamie Lee Curtis and Jared Leto

July 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Chase W. Dillon, Rosario Dawson, LaKeith Stanfield, Owen Wilson and Tiffany Haddish in “Haunted Mansion” (Photo by Jalen Marlowe/Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

“Haunted Mansion”

Directed by Justin Simien

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans, the comedy horror film “Haunted Mansion” (based on the Disney amusement park ride) features an African American and white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A single mother and her son move into a haunted mansion and enlist several people (including a ghost tour guide, a history professor, a priest and a medium) to help get rid of the evil spirit haunting the house.

Culture Audience: “Haunted Mansion” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, the Disney amusement park ride on which the movie is based, and mildly interesting but underwhelming horror comedies.

Jamie Lee Curtis in “Haunted Mansion” (Photo by Jalen Marlowe/Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

As a horror comedy, “Haunted Mansion” is built on a sinkhole of mishandled opportunities. The jokes are weak. The action is underwhelming. This stale reboot isn’t a complete waste of time, but it’s disappointing, considering the talented people involved. But it’s not too surprising, considering there’s nothing much that’s truly innovative in this lazy “Haunted Mansion” retread that has a lot of annoying product placement mentions incorporated into the mediocre dialogue.

Directed by Justin Simien and written by Katie Dippold, “Haunted Mansion” is a reboot of the 2003 comedy film “The Haunted Mansion” (starring Eddie Murphy), which was also a not-very-funny movie version of Disney’s iconic Haunted Mansion amusement park ride. The 2023 “Haunted Mansion” movie could have done so many unique and fantastic things for the story, but instead took the most obvious and boring route possible: A family moves into a haunted mansion, experiences terror from an evil spirit, and then must find an artifact previously owned by the ghost, in order to cast the spell that will permanently send the evil spirit away.

It takes an awfully long time for “Haunted Mansion” (which clocks in at a little more than two hours) for the characters to get to the revelation of how to get rid of the ghost. The “adventure” part of the story doesn’t really start until the movie is more than halfway over. Until then, “Haunted Mansion” is just a series of scenes where characters are introduced, and then they babble and argue about different ways to find out the secret of this haunted mansion. Just because certain characters get a lot of screen time, doesn’t mean that viewers will really learn a lot about these characters during the course of the movie.

“Haunted Mansion” was filmed on location in New Orleans, where the story takes place. Although the 2023 “Haunted Mansion” movie has an ensemble cast, the story’s chief protagonist is a former astrophysicist named Ben Matthias (played by LaKeith Stanfield), who now works as a “ghost tour” guide in New Orleans. Ben’s wife Alyssa (played by Charity Jordan), who died in a car accident, used to have this job. Near the beginning of the movie, a flashback shows that Alyssa and Ben met at a New Year’s Eve party. During their flirtatious conversation, Alyssa told him that she was a ghost tour guide, and she invited him on a tour, even though Ben says he doesn’t believe in ghosts.

Ben and Alyssa’s marriage is never shown in the movie, except for a few fleeting and superficial scenes of them cuddling as spouses. The problem with this void in the story is that a huge part of the plot hinges on Ben’s grief over Alyssa’s death. Viewers only get a quick “drive-by” version of the marriage. And therefore, there’s not much context given for Ben’s grief, since he barely talks about the marriage in the movie. Stanfield’s performance as Ben is perfectly adequate (Ben has a big emotional scene toward the end of the movie), but Stanfield also looks bored for a great deal of the movie.

Ben gets mixed up in the haunted house hijinks when he gets a visit from a wisecracking priest named Father Kent (played by Owen Wilson), who tells Ben that someone wants to hire Ben for a paranormal investigation of a mansion that is believed to be haunted. Ben immediately says no, but Ben changes his mind when he finds out that he’ll be paid $1,000. Ben takes the job because he desperately needs the money. Ben also has a “paranormal” camera that he invented because he thinks this camera can take photos of ghosts.

The person whose mansion needs to be investigated for paranormal activity is a doctor named Gabbie (played by Rosario Dawson, in a capable but bland performance), who has moved from New York to New Orleans with her 9-year-old son Travis (played by Chase W. Dillon), who is intelligent, sensitive and a bit nerdy. Gabbie’s deceased mother used to own this mansion, which Gabbie and Travis found out was haunted on the first night that they both stayed there as residents. And where is Travis’ father? That information is revealed later in the story.

To Ben’s surprise, his paranormal camera works and takes a photo of the ghost at the mansion. An investigation reveals that the mansion, which was built in 1888, used to be owned by a wealthy man named William Gracey (played by J.R. Adduci), who bought the house for his ailing wife Eleanor Gracey (played by Erika Coleman). A psychic medium named Madame Leota (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) and an affluent real-estate heir named Alistair Crump (played by Jared Leto), who both lived in New Orleans during that era, also factor into the story.

Alistair’s story is an obvious spoof commentary of Donald Trump’s story. It should come as no surprise to many viewers which character is the story’s villain. Leto appears in “Haunted Mansion” as a CGI ghost that looks like a tuxedo-wearing version of the Cryptkeeper from “Tales from the Crypt.” The Madame Leota character is trapped in a crystal ball, so only Madame Leota’s talking head is shown for most of Madame Leota’s screen time. It’s all very ho-hum horror.

Joining the investigation are a loudmouthed psychic/medium named Harriet (played by Tiffany Haddish) and a cranky professor of history named Bruce Davis (played by Danny DeVito), who is the most oddly placed character in the movie. Due to sloppy film editing and a jumbled screenplay, Bruce randomly shows up here and there and doesn’t do much but say things that often offend the other characters. There’s a scene where Bruce spends the night at the haunted mansion, with no good explanation for why he’s sleeping there.

“Haunted Mansion” is very deficient in character development. Almost all of the characters don’t have fully formed personalities, but are only playing “types.” Harriet sure likes to talk a lot (she’s the character with the most “product placement” lines), but by the end of the movie, there’s nothing interesting that has been revealed about Harriet. Travis is supposedly treated like an outcast by his student peers at school, based on what he tells people, but the movie never shows Travis in school. Father Kent has a secret that is so obvious and not surprising at all when it’s revealed. Ben is the only “Haunted Mansion” character who has something resembling a backstory, but it’s shown in fleeting clips.

As an example of how much the 2023 “Haunted Mansion” movie squanders the chance to bring some memorable flair to the story, the movie severely under-uses a sassy character named Vic (played by Dan Levy), who is a tour guide for the Crump mansion, which has been declared a historic landmark. Vic is in the movie for less than 10 minutes. There’s a scene where Vic is entertaining guests at the Crump mansion with a sing-along, but everything is only heard (not seen) in another room, for a brief moment that last less than 30 seconds.

It’s incredibly mind-boggling and foolish to waste the talents of Emmy-winning “Schitt’s Creek” star Levy by barely featuring him in the movie. The “Haunted Mansion” audience is teased with the fact that Levy’s Vic character is a music performer, but the movie never shows Vic actually being a music performer. Also very under-used is Winona Ryder, who has a quick cameo as another Crump mansion tour guide named Pat. Ryder’s screen time in “Haunted Mansion” is less than three minutes of uttering forgettable dialogue.

The blame for these bad decisions lies mostly with director Simien, whose previous films “Dear White People” and “Bad Hair” (he wrote and directed both movies) had elements of sharp satire that are absent from “Haunted Mansion,” which is admittedly a family-oriented movie. But even if “Haunted Mansion” is supposed to be a tame horror comedy that shouldn’t be too scary or too edgy for underage kids, Simien seems to have been worn down by the Disney corporate machine, to the point where “Haunted Mansion” has no spark or creative vision. Simien’s real-life amusing personality does not shine through in this generically directed movie. And that’s a shame, because the 2023 “Haunted Mansion” movie had the opportunity to be an instant classic.

Compared to the 2003 “Haunted Mansion” movie, the 2023 “Haunted Mansion” mansion movie benefits from better technology for more advanced visual effects. However, in the 20 years between the releases of the two “Haunted Mansion” movies, Disney has not offered a reboot with a better story than its predecessor. The 2023 “Haunted Mansion” film exists as a hollow promotional tool for the Disney amusement park ride and the companies that paid for the movie’s awkward and shameless product placements.

Walt Disney Pictures will released “Haunted Mansion” in U.S. cinemas on July 28, 2023.

Review: ‘Clerks III,’ starring Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Trevor Fehrman, Austin Zajur, Jason Mewes, Rosario Dawson and Kevin Smith

September 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jeff Anderson, Brian O’Halloran, Kevin Smith, Austin Zajur and Trevor Fehrman in “Clerks III” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Clerks III”

Directed by Kevin Smith

Culture Representation: Taking place in Leonardo, New Jersey, the comedy film “Clerks III” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: The misfits and eccentrics of the “Clerks” movies have returned—and this time, they’re making a biographical movie about the guy who’s the biggest screwup in the group.

Culture Audience: “Clerks III” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the previous “Clerks” movies and filmmaker Kevin Smith, because those are the viewers who are most likely to understand a lot of the jokes in “Clerks III.”

Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith in “Clerks III” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Clerks III” is best enjoyed by people who’ve seen or know about the first two “Clerks” movies. “Clerks III” relies heavily on jokes from previous “Clerks” movies. Therefore, some of the comedy is too repetitive. However, the movie’s zany attitude should please fans of a comedy film that can easily laugh at itself.

Kevin Smith wrote and directed 1994’s “Clerks” (still the best in the series), 2006’s “Clerks II” and 2022’s “Clerks III.” He plays on-again/off-again drug dealer Silent Bob in all three movies, which feature Silent Bob and his buffoonish partner in crime Jay (played by Jason Mewes, who is a longtime, close friend of Smith in real life). All three movies (which take place in Leonardo, New Jersey) revolve around eccentric and goofy clerks who work at small, quick-service stores in an outdoor shopping strip mall.

The two main clerks who are at the center of each movie are best friends Dante Hicks (played by Brian O’Halloran) and Randal Graves (played by Jeff Anderson), who are a stereotypical comedy “odd couple.” Dante is the more serious and “responsible” one of this duo. Randal is the one who’s more impulsive and more likely to make a mess of things. The biggest thing that Dante and Randal have in common is their passion for pop culture, especially anything that would attract a typical Comic-Con attendee.

In the first “Clerks” movie, Dante worked at the convenience store Quick Stop Groceries, which was next door to RST Video, where Randal worked. In “Clerks II,” Dante was the owner of Quick Stop, but Randal accidentally burned down the store after leaving a percolating pot of coffee unattended. The fire also destroyed RST Video, so Dante and Randal took jobs at a fast food restaurant called Mooby’s, where they worked with a teenager named Elias Grover (played by Trevor Fehrman) and Mooby’s manager Rebecca “Becky” Scott (played by Rosario Dawson).

In “Clerks III,” Dante and Randal are still bachelors working at low-paying jobs. Dante is once again the owner and operator of Quick Stop, which is right next door to RST Video, which now has a makeshift sign advertising that it now sells THC products. (In 2021, selling and using marijuana recreationally became legal in New Jersey.) Elias (with Fehrman reprising his role), who is a frequent customer of Quick Stop, has grown up to be a religious fanatic who can’t decide if he wants to be a devout Christian or a devout Satanist.

Becky died in 2006, at the age of 33. Dante, who was romantically involved with Becky in “Clerks II,” is still grieving over her death. Dante sees visions of Becky (with Dawson reprising her role) intermittently throughout “Clerks III,” where Becky imparts words of wisdom to Dante when he’s feeling down. Dante, who is now in his 50s, is battling with having a mid-life crisis, because he feels like he should have accomplished more with his life by now.

In addition to all of these returning characters, “Clerks III” introduces the new character Blockchain Coltrane (played by Austin Zajur), who is Elias’ mostly mute sidekick. Randal quips about Blockchain Coltrane: “It looks like Elias has got his own Silent Bob.” Elias is fixated on the idea of selling kites with the image of Jesus Christ on the kites. Elias thinks that that these kites will be a hit with the public. Dante is very skeptical and reluctant to sell any of these kites in the store.

There are some nods to the first “Clerks” movie in “Clerks III,” such as the opening scene where Dante arrives at Quick Stop to start work for the day, and he scrapes gum off of the front-door lock. (This “gum on a lock” plot device is a significant catalyst for the story in “Clerks.”) In “Clerks III,” there’s also an early scene where Dante, Randal and about six other men play hockey on the roof of Quick Stop, instead of working during the store’s opening hours, as confused and impatient customers line up to get into the store. It’s a reference to a similar scene in the first “Clerks” movie where Randal and Dante goofed off on the store roof instead of working.

The slacker characters of the first “Clerks” movie might be much older now, but it doesn’t mean that they’re much wiser. A lot of the comedy is about all the doltish things that the guys say and do. Any women in the movie mainly serve as foils for some of these shenanigans.

And you know what that means: Becky isn’t the only ex-girlfriend of Dante’s who shows up in “Clerks III.” Dante’s former fiancée Emma Bunting (played by Jennifer Schwalbach Smith), who was in “Clerks II,” makes an appearance. Veronica “Ronnie” Loughran (played by Marilyn Ghigliotti) from the first “Clerks” movie also has a small supporting role in “Clerks III.” Past grudges affect what happens between these characters. Viewers should really know the backstories of these characters in order to understand lot of the jokes.

The main story in “Clerks III” is that Randal has a heart attack, which leads him to rethink his life and what kind of legacy he wants to leave. He comes up with the idea of doing a movie about his life, which he will write and direct and star in, as himself. Randal thinks he’s qualfiied to direct his first movie because he’s watched a lot of movies. Silent Bob, who is hired to be the cinematographer of Randal’s movie, breaks his silence in a hilarious meta monologue referencing the first “Clerks” movie and why it was filmed in black and white.

Of course, Randal being Randal, all sorts of mishaps and mayhem occur during this movie shoot, which Randal wants to film mainly at Quick Stop. Dante starts to feel alienated by Randal acting like an egotistical director. Dante also feels like he’s being sidelined in the movie’s script. And all of the other characters get involved with their own agendas.

“Clerks III” has very much a vibe of, “The gang’s all back together, and let’s put a lot of famous people in this movie too.” There are numerous celebrity cameos in “Clerks III,” including Ben Affleck, Amy Sedaris, Justin Long, Danny Trejo, Fred Armisen, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Freddie Prinze Jr., Michelle Buteau and Anthony Michael Hall. No one does a terrible acting performance in the movie, but no one is particularly outstanding either.

One of the charms of the first “Clerks” movie is that it was obviously made by people who had no idea that the film would become a cult classic and launch the career of Smith. “Clerks III” has a little too much self-awareness for its own good. There’s a lot of fan servicing in “Clerks III” that won’t sit very well with people who have no knowledge of the first two “Clerks” movies. However, if people have enough knowledge of pop culture, they should gets some laughs out of “Clerks III,” which sometimes overloads on mentioning trendy things from the early 2020s that that will inevitably become very outdated.

What saves “Clerks III” from being an annoying rehash of the first two “Clerks” movies is the way the movie ends. Some people might be expecting this ending, because it’s an ending that Smith has talked about before in interviews. Other viewers might be caught off guard by the movie’s final scenes. This ending gives “Clerks III” an emotional substance that viewers will remember much more than the movie’s many trash-talking, throwaway jokes.

Lionsgate and Fathom Events are releasing “Clerks III” in select U.S. cinemas for a limited engagement from September 13 to September 18, 2022.

Review: ‘Sell/Buy/Date,’ starring Sarah Jones

March 19, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sarah Jones (as herself, as the Nereida character and as the Bella character) in “Sell/Buy/Date” (Photo courtesy of Sell/Buy/Date Film)


Directed by Sarah Jones

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York, California and Nevada, the documentary film “Sell/Buy/Date” features a racially diverse group of people (African American, white, Latino and Native American) from the working-class, middle-class and wealthy discussing American society’s attitudes and laws about sex workers.

Culture Clash: People offer different perspectives on whether or not certain types of sex work should be legal and what the repercussions would be if the laws changed.

Culture Audience: “Sell/Buy/Date” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching an unusual documentary about sex workers that blends comedy and the seriousness of hard-hitting issues.

In the very unique documentary “Sell/Buy/Date,” director Sarah Jones takes viewers on a personal journey exploring diverse perspectives of sex workers in America. The movie’s tonal shift from lighthearted to tragic is jarring but necessary. The first two-thirds of the film put more emphasis on Jones alternating between comedic sketches and interviews that she conducted with sex workers and celebrities. The last third of the film is when the documentary takes a much darker and more realistic turn, when sex workers talk about the exploitation and abuse that’s part of the sex industry, whether the sex work is legal or not.

“Sell/Buy/Date” is based on Jones’ one-woman stage show “Sell/Buy/Date,” which had a limited off-Broadway run in New York City in 2016 and a limited engagement in Los Angeles in 2018. In the stage show, Jones (who says she’s never been a sex worker) played various characters representing various perspectives of the sex industry. Jones is also known for her one-woman, off-Broadway show “Bridge & Tunnel,” which won a special Tony Award in 2006. Meryl Streep was an executive producer of “Bridge & Tunnel,” and Streep has the same title for the “Sell/Buy/Date” documentary.

In the “Sell/Buy/Date” stage show, Jones played 19 fictional characters of various races, ethnicities and genders. In real life, Jones (who usually identifies as African American and sometimes as biracial or multiracial) is the child of “an African American father and mother of mixed Euro-American and Caribbean descent,” according to Jones’ Wikipedia page. She calls herself a “woman of color” in the documentary.

In the “Sell/Buy/Date” documentary, Jones portrays four fictional characters: Lorraine, an outspoken 85-year-old white Jewish grandmother; Bella, an academic-minded white college sophomore, who’s majoring in sex-work studies and who’s “ashamed of her white privilege”; Nereida, a sassy half-Dominican, half-Puerto Rican advocate for female rights; and Rashid, a working-class African American man who’s an aspiring entrepreneur and who works as an Uber driver to pay his bills. The “Sell/Buy/Date” stage show also had fictional characters in the sex industry, but none of the play’s sex-worker characters are in the “Sell/Buy/Date” documentary, because Jones interviews real-life sex workers in the film.

Jones interviewed people in New York state (where Jones is based), California and Nevada. The interviewees range from sex workers to activists to people who are not in the sex industry but who know Jones personally. It’s clear from watching the tonal shift of the film that Jones started off thinking that the film was going to go one way, and it turned out going another way. “Sell/Buy/Date” had its world premiere at the 2022 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

The movie opens with a scene of Jones, Lorraine, Bella and Nereida gathered in Jones’ dressing room, as they talk about the “Sell/Buy/Date” stage show, which will soon close. It’s a comedy sketch where the four women discuss the controversy over the show, such as protestors and critics who call Jones and “Sell/Buy/Date” a “danger to women.” Nereida comments that with the “Sell/Buy/Date documentary, Jones was trying so hard to be the “wokest” to please everybody, the play has just ended up angering “everybody.” In a staged scene, Jones is seen getting criticism on social media for being a SWERF: Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist, which is a label that Jones says does not apply to her.

In a voiceover, Jones says of the “Sell/Buy/Date” characters that she created: “On stage, in my play, they help me share different sides of a topic that’s not often talked about in the sex industry.” As time goes on in the documentary, Jones eventually reveals that she’s created “Sell/Buy/Date” (the play and the movie) as a way to try to emotionally heal and come to terms with the death of her 18-year-old sister Naomi, whose drug addiction led to her becoming a sex worker. Jones doesn’t go into too many details about this tragedy in the movie, but she has said in media interviews that Naomi died at the start of Jones’ career in the entertainment industry.

Early on in the documentary, Jones mentions dreading the anniversary of Naomi’s death. She also talks about keeping Naomi’s journal for three years and being afraid to read it, although she eventually does read parts of the journal on camera in the documentary. It’s one of the best parts of the movie, when Jones is being herself and showing a very vulnerable side to her, instead of playing characters to get some laughs.

Jones’ mother Leslie (an obstetrician/gynecologist) appears briefly in the documentary and mostly shows support for Jones in making this movie, but she also expresses her disapproval of her daughter having to spend so much time with people whom Leslie thinks are unsavory characters because of their line of work. These mother/daughter scenes are mostly heartwarming, but viewers can tell that the subject of Naomi is too painful for them to talk about in depth on camera. (Jones’ parents are divorced, and her father does not appear in the documentary.)

There’s a little bit of Leslie that comes across in Jones’ grandmotherly Lorraine character. The character of Bella represents people who think all sex work should be legal everywhere. The character of Nereida is vehemently opposed to prostitution being legal, because she believes that prostitutes (especially female prostitutes) will still be exploited. In the beginning of the movie, Nereida argues with Jones about Jones glorifying prostitution in the documentary. And later, Nereida gives a passionate monologue that’s one of the movie’s best scenes. As for Rashid, this character is in the movie for pure comic relief as Jones’ driver. He doesn’t have much to say about the sex industry except to hint that he’s had experience in hiring sex workers.

People have different definitions of “sex work,” so “Sell/Buy/Date” talks mostly to sex workers whose primary sex work involves sex acts that are done in person. For example, there are no interviews with people who work only in phone sex or Internet/webcam sex. It’s debatable whether or not getting paid to strip and dance nude is considered “sex work,” but the movie includes a segment where Jones goes to a pole-dancing class taught by Amy Bond, founder of Pole + Dance Studios in San Francisco. During her interview, Bond opens up about her puritanical Mormon background and how she used to do porn. Bond encourages Jones and other people in the pole-dancing class to have more of a mind/body connection.

One of the more ironically interesting parts of the documentary is when Jones is in Las Vegas for a Sex Industrialist Revolution Conference taking place right next to an anti-sex trafficking conference. However, the documentary could have used more exploration of what making prostitution legal would really mean for sex-trafficking activities and how it all relates to gender issues. Men are the majority of customers for prostitutes, but the customers are punished less than the prostitutes, when it comes to the law and society’s judgments. It’s debatable if legal prostitution really erases the society stigma that prostitutes (who are usually female) have to bear more than their customers.

Some celebrities make cameos as themselves in the documentary. Rosario Dawson gives words of encouragement to Jones about making the movie. Ilana Glazer and Jones talk about the controversy over the “Sell/Buy/Date” play. Bryan Cranston appears toward the end of the film and shares a very personal story with Jones about how he lost his virginity to a prostitute.

At various points in the scripted parts of the movie, Jones is seen interacting by phone only with two characters from her “support team”: her manager Roger and her publicist Nora. These are fictional characters that could be based on real-life people. In the movie, it’s mentioned that Jones is in a “dead-end relationship” with Roger and that they are “just using each other.” Roger is also evicting her from a home that he’s been renting for her because he doesn’t want to pay her rent anymore. It’s never really explained in the movie how true any of this information is, but it looks out of place in a documentary.

For most of the documentary, the fictional characters drift in and out of the narrative. Other scenes not involving these fictional characters are deliberately staged, such as a scene where Jones is in a waiting room for a doctor’s appointment, and she’s sitting near a sex worker named Tish “The Dish” Roberts. The scene is staged to make it look like Roberts and Jones are meeting as random strangers for the first time, as Roberts sees Jones and gushes to Jones that she’s a fan of the “Sell/Buy/Date” play.

In this waiting room, the two women then talk about Roberts’ experiences as a sex worker. Roberts (who is African American) says she became a sex worker at age 17, when a white male schoolteacher she had at the time gave her a lot of attention that she craved. The teacher knew that Roberts came from an impoverished, broken home, so the attention that he gave her eventually turned to paying her to perform sex acts with him.

Roberts says that these payments for sex acts continued on more than one occasion, and she obeyed the teacher’s orders to keep everything a secret. She comments to Jones about that sexual experience: “It felt like a transaction. I learned to detach from it.”

In the conversation, Roberts thanks Jones for doing the “Sell/Buy/Date” play and movie for giving a voice to sex workers. Jones doesn’t pass judgment on Roberts, but neither does Jones call this teacher-student experience for what it really is: sexual exploitation. And depending on the age-of-consent-law in the state where it took place, it would have been illegal sexual abuse.

Lotus Lain, a sex worker who is also described as a “sex worker advocate,” warns Jones about the pitfalls of directing this documentary and not being in the sex industry herself: “You’re about to get yourself cancelled. You’re an outsider. You are what we call a ‘civilian.’ You do not understand what it is we go through to be telling our stories.” The conversation between Jones and Lain ends on a cordial note, but Jones does seem very aware throughout the film that she’s learning more about the sex industry as she goes along in making the documentary.

At first, some of the sex workers interviewed in the documentary paint a rosy picture of being in control of their work and their bodies. A common theme in this talk is that sex work can equal “empowerment.” But what “Sell/Buy/Date” eventually does is expose the different layers of the sex industry to show that the people who push the most for prostitution to be legal are the ones who are most likely to get the most financial gain from it. And men are the vast majority of the business owners in the sex industry.

In the documentary, these business owners include porn entrepreneur/actor Evan Seinfeld (also known as a musician who used to be the lead singer/bassist for the rock band Biohazard), who essentially brags about how much money he can make from porn and talks about how his employees (who are mostly women) can make a lot of money too. What he doesn’t mention (but is obvious to anyone who knows anything about business) is that because Seinfeld owns his company, he still makes more money than the people who work for him.

In Nevada (where prostitution is legal), brothel owner Alice Little gives Jones a cheerful tour of her Chicken Ranch brothel, which has only women as sex workers. Little talks about how the brothel is safe and regulated, but she glosses over any negative experiences her employees have had with customers. Little admits that she’s one of the very few women in the United States who owns a legal brothel. What Seinfeld and Little have in common is promoting their businesses in this documentary, so of course their agenda is to make the sex industry look as glamorous as possible.

But then, Jones shows another side of the sex industry that is more common: the workers who don’t own businesses in the sex industry, and who are at the mercy of customers, pimps/madams and other people who can exploit them. The documentary starts to get real when sex workers/activists such as Esperanza Fonseca (a transgender woman) and Pueblo tribe member Terria Xo open up about the violence and other abuse they’ve experienced in their line of work. Addictions to drugs and alcohol are also occupational hazards. When people talk about making prostitution legal, no one likes to talk about who’s going to pay the medical bills when these sex workers get viciously assaulted during their work.

Jones interviews Xo with other Native American activists, such as Jennifer Marley (who is Tewa, part of the Pueblo tribe) and Becki Jones (from the Diné/Navajo tribe), who give honest and direct talk about how sex workers who are women of color and transgender women are disproportionately more likely than any other sex workers to experience violence and death because of sex work. And therefore, they say that even if prostitution became legal everywhere in America, it still would not change the violence that can happen, and the racial and gender disparities in who gets to profit the most from sex work. “Sell/Buy/Date” doesn’t force viewers to think one way or another about these issues, but it admirably presents enough perspectives for viewers to make up their own minds.

UPDATE: Cinedigm will release “Sell/Buy/Date” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 14, 2022.

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