Leilah Weinraub’s bold, immersive documentary, Shakedown (2018), both enthralls and makes us question how we think about sex and its presentation on camera. A tribute to Weinraub’s talent, the film takes us into the eye of the spectacle — the dance club floor with dynamic, erotic figures of Black female dancers who strip for women — and then elegantly pulls us back. Weinraub finds a place of distance and subtle re-calibration where nothing is what it at first appears. This is a fitting approach for a film that celebrates a communal physical and symbolic space in which one can create a perfectly fluid, slippery identity to be desired and worshipped for — a state of grace, as we come to understand, that still rarely exists outside subaltern club culture.
That unique space, or the Shakedown, is a series of underground Los Angeles lesbian club nights — Shakedown sessions — that started with erotic dancers like Mahogany, one of the original Shakedown Angels. The spirited Mahogany is named after Diana Ross’s high-fashion persona from the film Mahogany (1975). She has danced in drag shows like Dimes for Divas for over 30 years, and it was she who urged Ronnie Ron, herself a forceful presence, to start regular Shakedown sessions. Another dancer and the documentary’s real star, Egypt, has also been an idol. Asked by Weinraub if younger women seek her out these days, Egypt laughs coyly, “They find me through their mothers!”
Weinraub worked at the club in the early 2000s taking videos until eventually becoming part of its community. She also filmed interviews with regulars and dancers between 2002 and 2014. In the film, these candid talks and videos are mixed with archival footage of the dance sessions that took place in the 1990s. In all parallel frames, which inform each other without clear time markers, the club exudes a vibrant crepuscular aura. In the acts, women’s bodies glitter and glide, some muscular, others plush, the acts ranging from highly acrobatic to more subdued, with costumes and props. All inevitably lead to disrobing, bodily contact, an enactment to stir other women’s pleasure.
Watching Shakedown, it’s difficult not to think of Laura Mulvey’s important essay from 1975, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Since that time, the ways that sex is portrayed in cinema has changed little. In Mulvey’s essay, she investigates how the fascination and pleasure captured on film echo the pre-existing patriarchal structures. Her interest in scopophilia (aka “deriving pleasure from looking”) in traditional Hollywood films leads her to consider a woman’s body primarily as a fetish, destined for easy consumption — i.e. the male gaze.
We could certainly think of fetish in the context of Shakedown’s male and female customers. One regular, a man who calls himself Hot Dog, says bluntly, “When I get hot I dog them.” Another woman falls passionately in love while watching Egypt perform, but doesn’t like to see this alter ego now that they are together: “It’s like Superman. She goes in as Aisha and comes out as Egypt.” Weinraub herself perhaps said it best in an interview at Berlinale where the film competed for the Teddy Award: “Part of the attraction is objectification. I don’t think that being objectified is entirely negative. I just think that the person doing the objectifying, what’s their intention? Is it subjective objectification?”
This striking paradox points to just how thorny, but also inherently fascinating, the presentation of sex can be in cinema. The nuanced approach is also suggestive of Weinraub’s process, the way she feels her way around some 400 hours of footage, revealing shifting perspectives. Let’s take the questions of gender difference and sexual orientation. Ronnie confesses she was feminine and not gay before the club, and only later became a “stud.” Egypt says she performs her act “hard, like a man,” different from other women, and so can dance with drag queens. “Like what move?” Weinbraub prods, a relatively rare moment when we hear the director’s voice on camera.
For Weinraub, who spoke with me over the phone, the real difference between women dancing for men versus for women ultimately lies “in the temperature of the room, the way you treat someone, the way you see another person.” But yes, Shakedown is about sex. “I’m surprised when people don’t talk about that. There’s an oversimplification in cinema where you’re either objective or subjective, and where objectification is bad. We complicate this idea.” Ultimately, there can be no quick answers in a place that, as Egypt says, is all about fantasy.
It’s precisely this nebulousness of identities that reveals the limitations of our concepts — that makes Shakedown a thrilling and also valuable film. The audience must take the imaginative leap and accept the contradicting identities that Weinraub presents, without insisting that they must cancel out. Mulvey herself, in her book Death 24x a Second (2006), moves beyond thinking of women’s bodies as entirely fetishized, as pure spectacle. Ultimately, the body contains its own complex truth. This truth may or may not mirror the eye — be it male, female, the club spectator’s, the camera’s, or ours.
Weinraub includes some photographs she took on the night the club was raided by undercover policemen who booked at least one dancer for soliciting. The club had a license to operate, and we can hear off screen the voice of the DJ trying to keep everyone calm. But it soon becomes clear that the LAPD was going to run them out. The club nights move out of their regular space and into others in 2004. One of the last shot is of the dancers exiting the club after their last performance, leaving us with a bitter ending and the breakup of the Shakedown Angels.
Towards the end, in a rare infusion of artifice into the vérité frame, Weinraub asks Egypt to read the lines, “Nothing is what it seems from the outside, and from the outside things pretty much look the same.” Then, she asks Egypt to read those lines again, slower. Weinraub composed those last lines not as a confession of nostalgia, but as a way to work against it, and to point back to the viewer, thus moving away from pure voyeurism, back to the idea of intentionality. “I think my biggest fear is for people to see my film and not refer back to themselves, to their private immediate self, their body.”