‘Shakedown’ is the debut feature length documentary from Hood By Air cofounder Leilah Weinraub
In the late 90s to the early 00s, there was an exclusive party upsetting the standard nightlife structure in the City of Angels. Far away from the rampant elitism of Bel-Air and Beverly Hills, The Shakedown was a series of weekly nocturnal club parties situated in the hood, made exclusively for lesbians, by lesbians. Shakedown is the debut feature length documentary from Leilah Weinraub, who was the resident videographer of The Shakedown for 15 years and consequently has over 400 hours of archive footage, a rare odyssey of sexual liberation at the hands of black queer women who once dominated the underground L.A strip scene.
Seamlessly blending hyperactive soundscapes, nostalgic lo-fi aesthetics and nods to contemporary pop culture such as a soulful rendition of 90s girl group Xscape’s deep cut record sung by Kelela, the film’s singularity functions as a unparalleled documentation of a forgotten utopian moment. It’s a dreamlike, behind-the-scenes glimpse at a forgotten moment of the Y2K era that influenced fashion, video vixens, and hip hop, while also subtly reminding viewers just how trailblazing marginalized people from underground culture really are.
Making its US debut at True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, Shakedown has been receiving glowing reviews for showcasing a diverse lineup of the queer community from studs, plus size women, to femme lesbians, and cultivating a intoxicating odyssey of hedonism without veering into voyeurism. While many will reference Jennie Livingston’s iconic 1990 documentary, Paris is Burning, one thing is certain: Weinraub completely avoids Livingston’s by-now-notorious exploitation accusations by grounding Shakedown as a community-focused film, positioning her gaze not as a spectator but as an insider looking in.
At the heart of the succinct 82-minute run time, the Shakedown Angels and its creator act as the nucleus of Weinraub’s project, playing their roles as dancers and strippers, the chosen family unit. Although the film is rife with unique characters with names like Slim Goodie and Slow-Wine, it follows a threesome of important figures. Egypt is a soft-spoken former cheerleader, Jazmyne, whose jaw-dropping prowess on the dancefloor affords her status as “Queen” of the nightclub, Ronnie Ron, who is head emcee and mastermind of Shakedown Productions, and Mahogany, the legendary matriarch who acts as the mother hen to the young lesbian and strippers. Mixing archival footage, in-your-face performances and interviews, the film cuts scenes with vintage throwbacks to the Shakedown’s flyers, a cute reminder of a pre-social media underground.
“The heart of the film is friendship – the little moments shared between the women helping one another before and after a performance, Jennifer Lopez’s Glow perfume being sprayed around the room”
Yes, there’s illicit footage in the documentary – a strap-on scene and racy clips from a 2002 local television programme called Issues in the Hood – but the heart of the film is friendship – the little moments shared between the women helping one another before and after a performance, Jennifer Lopez’s Glow perfume being sprayed around the room, the lighthearted jokes. That sense of friendship is best demonstrated during the film’s climax – an undercover police sting operation that results in Jazmyne’s topless arrest at the cusp of her dance routine. Friends and party attendees can be seen helping the dancer assemble her outfit back together as she stands silent and handcuffed in front of a stunned club, a humiliating detention at the hands of armed white men.
Although Ronnie Ron’s goal of establishing “their own space in 2004” was never fulfilled due to police interference, The Shakedown’s legacy of queer acceptance and non-conformity can be traced to the other side of the country in New York, in modern club scenes like Venus X’s infamous GHE20G0TH1K. While Shakedown leaves audiences craving a status update of the women featured in the film, Weinraub deliberately sidesteps the typical ‘Where Are They Now’ segment, adding a layer of allure and in some ways, a sense of privacy otherwise unseen in many documentaries that profile a culturally historic moment in time. While the explicit X rating will detract certain theatres from programming the film, audiences will miss out if they don’t search out this unparalleled, experimental expression of self-documentation from a filmmaker who’s just getting started.