Leilah Weinraub’s Shakedown is a fascinating glimpse into the world of African-American lesbian clubs and strip shows.
Shakedown (2018) is based on extensive interviews with women involved in the African-American lesbian nightclub scene in Los Angeles over the past 30 years. The documentary had its world premiere screening at the 68th Berlin Film Festival’s Panorama Audience Award. For a Berlinale audience seeing the film for the first time in public – in a city with a long tradition of tolerance for its queer population – it sounded like a an echo from another world.
Opening with a seductive list of the exotically-named dancers who appear in the feature length film, the audience is set up for a fabulous journey through a patchwork of archive clips, contemporary show posters and interviews with the leading figures of the scene.
The film plays at a fast pace with 22 scenes set to the tempo that existed in the African-American women’s lesbian Los Angeles underground clubs and strip shows of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. The dancers, known as the Shakedown Angels are portayed to us during the film, along with security guards Big T and Tina. The sense of being allowed in a very exclusive secret world is inescapable.
The director herself is an active participant in the lesbian underground scene, and she draws us into the excitement and exoticism of the world she is documenting through interviews and images. We see a succession of crudely printed flyers for acts such as I-Dallas or Jamaika – stage names for dancers – decorated with images of scantily clad women and other designs.
«The dancers, known as the Shakedown Angels are portayed to us during the film.»
A lively soundtrack of the tunes the women danced and stripped to mingle with archive sound footage, and we hear the voice of Ronnie Ron, who created, produced and presented the shows under the name of Shakedown Productions. «Check this out, I don’t mean to appal anybody, but this is a gay club, please don’t disrespect my dancers – they dance for girls – if you don’t like it, just have a seat,» Ronnie says.
«Once one is undressed the show is over.»
The images give way to graining video (or perhaps mobile phone) footage shot at the time. It first portrays the performer known as Egypt, dancing and stripping to an appreciative audience, as she explains the freedom her persona gave her: «I could be anything I wanted… a Barbie, a kitten…I could bear your ass, I could do anything…»
As she cuts between archive footage and interviews, Weinraub’s approach is to elucidate both the underground dancing scene and the female performers who found their way to it, teasing out information about their backgrounds (one woman admits that as a high school cheerleader who dated boys and had not then come out as gay.) «To me, at that time, it was nasty,» she candidly admits.
«The images give way to graining video footage shot at the time.»
Another dancer, Miss Mahogany recalls her introduction to erotic dancing happened by chance when her dress fell open, exposing her breasts without her realising it and she was showered with dollar bills in tips. «I’ve been entertaining for 33 years,» she says in an interview – adding that there is a paucity of early footage from her career as she appeared at a club where photography was forbidden. She explains the difference between stripping for men and women, noting that women are a more demanding audience who expect more in the way of pretty and feminine costumes as the clothed stripper is what really turns them on: once one is undressed the show is over.
A glimpse into a secret world
Wry and amusing, Shakedown is a truly intimate glimpse into a world that few outside of it would know. Ronnie Ron, who as a promoter and organiser of shows and club events, has long been a central figure in the lesbian underground scene. She is almost literally a larger than life character – a chunk of a woman known as «butch». Ronnie Ron is seen in Weinraub’s film explaining her work and business ethics («everything has to be perfect»), and in archive footage where her strong and humorous personality shines through in scenes where she offers women with attractive toes free drinks, and where she teases handsome men.
«We see a succession of crudely printed flyers for acts such as I-Dallas or Jamaika.»
As a couple of club-goers tell Weinraub, «the women are sexy, they are fine and there are not many gay clubs where you can go and be yourself in the ‘hood.» The story is not without its moments of drama: in 2004 at one club, a semi-naked dancer is arrested for soliciting after undercover cops in the audience tipped off uniformed colleagues. The arrest is captured on film. The party goes on after the police leave, though continued police and legal pressure eventually force Ronnie Ron to close it down.
Shakedown takes its viewers into the heart of the ‘hood for this intriguing journey through a little explored area of African-American experience.