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'Shakedown' has fans at the Whitney and on Pornhub
A fashion show put on by Hood by Air, where filmmaker Leilah Weinraub served as CEO, Sept. 11, 2016. The director captured the utopia that was Shakedown, a strip club catering to black lesbians, and the result was a radically intimate documentary suited to both a museum and Pornhub. Ben Sklar for The New York Times.

by Melena Ryzik



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The moment Leilah Weinraub stepped into Shakedown, a roving lesbian strip club in Los Angeles, she was hooked. It was the winter of 2002, she was a recent college graduate, and Shakedown, which was part of a scene that catered to black lesbians, offered a tantalizing new community.

“I had never been in a lesbian space that was full before,” Weinraub said. She immediately breezed her way into serving as house photographer for the parties.

Not long after, she realized stills weren’t going to cut it: The action at Shakedown was in the movement — of the sweaty dancers and appreciative crowd, of the charismatic founder and promoter, and of the dollars that made their way from performers’ G-strings to their nail techs and babysitters. She borrowed a camera, began filming and didn’t stop for a decade.

The result is a radical and intimate documentary, also called “Shakedown,” that made the festival rounds and was included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, in New York City. In March, it became the first nonadult film — although it has plenty of adult imagery — to be released by Pornhub. Next month, it will be broadcast by the Criterion Channel; free options like BoilerRoom.tv will show it in the meantime. It is definitely the only movie with this trajectory, which speaks to both the connections of its filmmaker and a new regard for the labor, and pleasures, of sex workers and women of color.

“Everybody wants to be a stripper now,” one of the film’s stars, Egypt Blaque Knyle, said. “They all take a pole class. My mom be there with her church heels on.”

For Weinraub, 40, who is best known for her work with the cult downtown fashion line Hood by Air, for which she served as a creative director and chief executive, the broad distribution of “Shakedown” affirms her instincts.

“There was an audience,” she said. Though she was new to Shakedown when she began documenting it, she wasn’t surprised by how vibrant its culture was. “I was surprised at how late the rest of the world was” to discover it, she said.

That confidence marks her vision as an artist, said Christopher Y. Lew, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art who helped program the 2017 biennial. “I do think Leilah is one of the rare artists who is deeply in touch with culture as it unfolds in the moment,” he said.

In vérité style, “Shakedown” follows the lives of several dancers, like Miss Mahogany, a godmother of the scene who explains how her first time stripping was the result of a wardrobe malfunction. The camera pulls back to reveal her sitting under a giant framed photo of herself in a bra, wad of cash in hand; she has been dancing for more than 30 years. Others describe awakening to their own LGBTQ identity, or talk about the distance between their personas on the club floor and off. Egypt Blaque Knyle (Aiisha Ferguson), a former Disney dancer and mother of two, likens herself to a drag queen. “Egypt is a fantasy,” she says, in an interview at home with her girlfriend.

Showing the full scope of these women’s lives — their families and living rooms; their careful economies and backstage prep (a blunt is lit; a dancer stands spread-eagle as a female security guard wafts perfume on “all the good parts”) — was a big part of what Weinraub wanted to depict. As she and her editors winnowed 400 hours of footage, she hoped to get the film “to a place where the people in it feel seen,” she said.

Shakedown’s founder and MC, an outsize personality known as Ronnie-Ron, is introduced as she maneuvers her SUV through a self-car wash, proselytizing about how to succeed at business. “A man is supposed to work hard for his money,” she says, “and a wo-man as well. If I lose a job, I’m going to have another one the next day. Hallelujah! Believe it and receive it!” Her goal was to afford a dedicated space for Shakedown, which took place twice a week, year-round — not easy in underground venues that eschewed publicity.

The film, which includes NSFW moments of explicit nudity, lap dances and strap-ons, has a moody look — what Weinraub called “this really soft, low-light charm” — partly because she continued using her original camera after video technology had evolved past it. “There was a really long amount of time that this footage was ugly,” she said. “People were like, ‘You need to reshoot all this.’ I’m like, no, these are the moments. I don’t think it’s wrong.”

At Weinraub’s direction, Pornhub streamed “Shakedown” on a specially designed site, where, long before social distancing, she included chat boards to simulate the sort of community one might find in a theater. The film had more than 150,000 views in March, a representative for Pornhub said, with about 50,000 users either participating in or viewing chats. (Weinraub did weekly Q&A’s.)

“The reception has been so overwhelmingly positive,” said Alex Klein, brand director at Pornhub. The company had long wanted to engage with artists; it sponsored a Hood by Air collection in 2016, and has been in touch with Weinraub ever since. “This just really felt like it made sense,” Klein said. (Pornhub has seen viewership increase during the coronavirus pandemic, as millions are trapped indoors.)

For viewers not used to representations of themselves onscreen, “Shakedown” was a revelation. “As a black lesbian woman, I have never seen myself anywhere, especially in a way that’s celebrated like that, with a bunch of us around each other,” said Aya Brown, 24, head of events and programming at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, a gallery that screened the film at its Harlem, New York, location in 2018. (Brown, no relation to the gallery owner, was not involved in curating it.)

The culture of vogue balls introduced to mainstream audiences in “Paris Is Burning” — an antecedent to “Shakedown” — is fundamental to queer culture, Brown said, but it leans male. “There’s nothing that feels like it’s ours,” she said, calling Weinraub’s film an inspiration. “‘Shakedown’ talks about family in a way that I haven’t really seen. You see a scene with one of the dancers and her girlfriend and a kid, too. You see that we exist in this world in all shapes and sizes, and we can own businesses too, and establishments, and create for each other.”

Identity was also intrinsic to the narrative of Hood by Air, the streetwise New York-based fashion line. An openly queer collective led by designer Shayne Oliver, it played with gender and sought out faces and ethnicities that were otherwise hardly visible on catwalks. Their styles were Gothic-industrial and creatively proportioned, and the logo T-shirts they made cost $600. They were a huge hit. (The label disbanded in 2017.)

Weinraub, who had a hand in the designs along with the rest of the group, viewed this period of her life as a utopia, one of a few she has experienced. They were all tightly knit to community, she told me in our conversations via phone and FaceTime. She was holed up in a friend’s photo studio in Los Angeles, where she’d recently relocated from New York, waiting out the coronavirus. Once, we talked while she took an anxiety-quelling walk around the empty streets, rubbing her growing-out buzz cut as she told me her theory of utopias: “These little bubbles have to end for them to kind of pollinate a bigger culture,” she said. “It feels sad, but it bursts at some point.”

Weinraub grew up in Los Angeles, around Koreatown, not far from pioneering LGBT club Jewel’s Catch One that became a part of her orbit. Her father was a pediatrician; her mother, a textile artist, who also worked in his office. Her family — her mother was black, her father white and Jewish — viewed themselves as multiracial; Weinraub, one of four siblings, identifies as black, with a Jewish education — for a time, she attended high school in Israel.

She was considering going to a Jewish seminary when her life took a turn. Back in LA, she was working at Maxfield, a luxury boutique catering to high-end aesthetes.

“You’re just supposed to be this soft pillow of a personality for them to brush up against,” she recalled. There, she met director Tony Kaye (“American History X”). They hit it off, “talking about God,” and she became his assistant as he worked on a documentary. He helped her to college, too, at Antioch, where she studied media and social change.

All of that was scaffolding for Hood by Air, with its image-bursting vision of who counted as fashion. “Like Shakedown, Hood by Air was more than just a business,” said Lew, the Whitney curator. “It served as a home for an LGBT community created by like-minded folks” and that “presented itself unabashedly.”

At Shakedown, too, Weinraub was not an interloper: She was part of that world, and proud of it. The stance she learned there, she said, was “being super unapologetic and not sanitizing your expressions. People want to see it, how you give it.”

It was Weinraub’s attitude that convinced Ferguson — Egypt Blaque Knyle — to participate in the documentary. “She was just a great persuader. She used to call me every day: ‘Want to get coffee or tea?’ And the next thing I know, the cameras were there.”

Looking back, Ferguson added, the Shakedown scene was a movement toward acceptance for those on the social fringes. “But at that time, we didn’t know that’s what we were doing,” she said. “We just knew these little clubs, that was our playground, and when we got there, we could do whatever we wanted to do. It was for us.”

She watched the movie with her children. “It felt like I finally was fed, because I was starving to see what this was going to be.”

Shakedown the party largely ended around the time Weinraub stopped filming — it was never able to find a dedicated home. What did the community lose? Weinraub didn’t want to say.

“It’s up to each generation” to create their own utopias, she said. “It’s a pleasure space, so it has to be invented.” The movie, she added, is one blueprint: “This is a document, this is an idea, and, you know, go for it.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company










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