Like an earnest, feminist, less inflammatory (but just as ready to tackle controversy head on) Sacha Baron Cohen, Tony-winning performer Sarah Jones uses a variety of memorable characters to explore the complex, complicated world of sex work in her feature film directorial debut, Sell/Buy/Date. Executive produced by Meryl Streep and adapted by Jones from her own successful stage play, the film doesn’t have easy answers or neat solutions but does offer plenty of insight — and raises thought-provoking questions.
Structured as the story of Jones’ journey to figure out the right way to make a film out of the play — which drew vocal criticism from some sex workers, who saw Jones as exploiting their stories and stigmatizing their industry — Sell/Buy/Date doesn’t fit neatly into any single cinematic box. It’s a documentary, but one in which Jones controls the narrative, especially when she’s talking to herself as one of her alter egos, a group that includes outspoken elderly Jewish bubbe Lorraine, passionately “woke” White college student Bella, and forthright Dominican/Puerto Rican women’s rights advocate Nereida.
Playing multiple characters helps Jones explore different views on the sex industry and those who work in it. She literally debates herself, especially in scenes where Nereida lectures Sarah. Jones also includes conversations with activists, a brothel owner, and celebrities like Rosario Dawson and Brian Cranston as she delves into the many conflicting perspectives about sex work and whether it empowers or victimizes women.
The short answer to that question, according to Jones and the film, is “both.” The longer answer is that there is no short answer — that this is an endlessly complicated issue with a history as old and as messy as humanity itself. But what does become clear by the end of the film is that Jones has a deep, abiding respect and affection for her fellow women and that what she wants more than anything is to see women happy, healthy, supported, and safe. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Nell Minow: This movie is about more than sex work. It is a sensitive, heartfelt interrogation into the idea of stories, not just why they matter but who has the right to tell them. When Sarah Jones finally claims her own story, it provides context not just about the world of sex work but about her life as a storyteller. After more than an hour of seeing her process the world through splintered, heightened versions of herself and what she has observed, she reaches a new level of authenticity to help her admit the complexity of finding a balance between agency and protection.
Marilyn Ferdinand Over the years, I’ve had heated discussions with people who insist that when faced with a variety of options, sex workers freely choose to sell their bodies to earn a living. To me, the menu of options is neither as abundant nor as likely to provide a living wage as these free-market philosophers believe. Actor/writer/comedian Sarah Jones takes on the many issues surrounding the economics and ethics of the sex industry in Sell/Buy/Date, an adaptation of her Tony Award-winning play of the same name. Jones plays several different characters based on interviews with a wide variety of women. This constellation of characters—from an old Jewish woman to a social-media influencer—act as foils for the questions she later poses to sex workers and activists who offer different views of the benefits and harms of the life. Although the film is often lighthearted and humorous, the serious questions into whether sex work really is a victimless choice dig deep. Jones reaches her own conclusion while giving audiences the tools to understand this often-hidden world.
Leslie Combemale As a hybrid documentary, Sell/Buy/Date is one freaky little non-movie, or what ‘I-can-do-it-all’ poster gal, writer/director/producer/performer Sarah Jones calls an ‘unorthodoc’. Sell/Buy/Date considers how the sex industry is at the intersection of race, feminism, power, and money, through the lens of one Black woman with many voices seeking to better understand sex work. The film is a bit of a strange hybrid of narrative and objective documentary styles that sometimes makes it unclear how much of the film is scripted. However, it offers new and compelling information about a subject too few are willing to consider and take on in any substantive way. It also shows the openheartedness and many talents of Sarah Jones, who deserves to be known around the world for her any or all of her many hyphenates. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin Sell/Buy/Date is comedian Sarah Jones’ cinematic adaptation of her Tony Award-winning stage play about the sex industry. In her feature directorial debut, Jones plays herself and steps into the shoes of multiple characters, creating a somewhat serious hybrid doc/narrative send up. She’s joined by Bryan Cranston, Rosario Dawson, Ilana Grazer and others, all with pithy, profound, non-judgmental comments on sex work and Sarah Jones’ investigation of the sex industry’s relationship with race, ethnicity, power and economics. The film is quirky, clever and amusing and, underlying the satire, packs quite a punch.
Loren King Sell/Buy/Date is an engaging, original, and razor sharp take on the current discourse over “cancel culture.” Actor and writer Sarah Jones plays herself, fresh off her Tony Award-winning play about sex workers and the sex industry. Also playing multiple roles of the characters from her play, the film depicts Jones as she wrestles with fallout from news that her play is about to be adapted into a film and arguments over who gets to tell whose story. Interacting with her fictional “selves” are real-life people from the sex industry, social media and beyond. Jones crafts a one-of-a-kind work that’s both timely and entertaining, culturally significant and just plain fun.
Susan Wloszczyna: The documentary Sell/Buy/Date was inspired by actress, writer and first-time film director Sarah Jones and based on her same-named stage play in which she played three other characters who all have connections to the sex trade. There was some controversy about her topic that made people think that she would show a negative portrait of women who make a living in this way. That was not her intent. However, when a social media backlash occurred when the film was announced, producers Laverne Cox and Rashida Jones left the project. However, Meryl Streep stepped up to be the executive producer. Read full review.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Buy/Sell/Date is a genre-bending hybrid narrative feature and documentary about award-winning playwright Sarah Jones’ attempt to turn her play about sex work into a film. Jones, who plays four characters in her one woman show, reprises those roles and takes a cross-country journey to explore the topic of sex work from all sides. This is a powerful film that manages to give voice to women sex workers, trans advocates, Indigenous activists, and more to dive deeper into issues of empowerment and body sovereignty but also sexual violence, and exploitation. The powerful film swings from humorous to devastating, and it will make viewers think more open-mindedly about the sex industry from various perspectives.
Liz Whittemore Writer-director Sarah Jones tackles the backlash to the announcement that her award-winning play Sell/Buy/Date was becoming a film. Digging into the unending nuance surrounding sex work through conversations with her characters, all played brilliantly by Jones, and sit-down discussions with those entwined with the industry for better or worse. Speaking with a wide range of people, from a trans woman to native women, a brothel owner, sex work advocates, to her mother, Jones examines the fine lines between socioeconomics, trauma, privilege, survival, empowerment, and exploitation. With heart, humor, and raw emotion, this version of Sell/Buy/Date allows for grief and personal catharsis as Jones educates herself and the audience all at once. It’s a standing ovation for Sarah Jones.
Cate Marquis When comedian Sarah Jones learns that her successful, Tony Award-winning stage play about sex workers is going to be made into a Hollywood movie, she is pretty excited about it. But that news brings an unexpected backlash on social media – from sex workers themselves, who claim she is appropriating their story. Sell/Buy/Date is a documentary, directed by Jones herself, about how Sarah Jones deals with that backlash, featuring Jones as many of the characters she plays in her stage play, along with real people. Which makes this film a hybrid creation – a documentary about that real-life reaction, about Jones’s sincere attempts to understand the backlash, and also a movie version of the play itself, exploring the fraught, complicated topic of sex work. It is pretty meta stuff, but funny, insightful and educational at the same time, filled with wonderful, offbeat characters who follow the comedian/playwright around as she figures things out.
Director: Sarah Jones
Release Date: October 24, 2022
Running Time: 97 minutes
Screenwriters: Sarah Jones and David Goldblum
Distribution Company: Cinedigm
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin