Leilah Weinraub on her luminous film Shakedown, and the difficulties of making an honest, non-exploitative film about a subculture
Leilah Weinraub’s documentary feature Shakedown is named after the black lesbian strip club night in Los Angeles where Weinraub worked as a “video lady” in the early 2000s, in her early 20s. A hazy portrayal of a social scene, of sex and money, the film follows figures such as Egypt and Jazmine, beloved performers at the club, and Ronnie-Ron, Shakedown’s creator, up until the club night was shut down by the LAPD.
The movie evades easy categorization, both because of the underground nature of the scene and because of Weinraub’s protective relation to her subjects, who she describes as her stars. It’s a dreamy glimpse into a scene subjected to outrageous pressures — from the spectral cop of homophobia and even more from the real cops — that was a wellspring of fun, love, desire and good times regardless.
Like all scenes, the one around Shakedown was full of a multitude of relationships and antagonisms that a single documentary could never fully depict. Weinraub’s film skims the surface of this multiplicity with the grace of a lap dance, both inviting and disciplining the viewer’s desire. Here, she takes us behind the scenes.
“What I liked about Shakedown was that the way people related to gender performance was consistently random. It was absolutely talked about, it was something people were inventing variations on all the time, but it was laid back. The way to be radical is to leave people space to be consistently random. If you feel a new way you have a new word for it. When does an expansive practice become dogmatic? It’s at the point where it’s regulated. Where you start to think in terms of right and wrong ways to talk about gender. And in this place, in the interviews in the film, it was just consistently random.
“It’s because it’s women. This whole world of women being gay is actually really undiscovered. It’s not gonna take the same road as gay guys. I feel like gay guys got having anonymous sex down pat, and a lot of that has to do with streamlining your personality. It’s like: ‘I wear a shirt and pants, and I have a hard dick, that’s my package.’ But women are so many things, and any one of those things could mean you’re not gonna have sex.
“Shakedown was consistently inconsistent. Everybody there is different in a lot of different ways and you want to be attractive to them too so you’re like, ‘OK I’ve also got a lot going on.’ When the characters talk about being bisexual or whatever, at the end you’re not any more clear on what she’s talking about than at the beginning because that’s not the point, you have to just be OK with things being hard to understand.
“My biggest fear with this film was exploitation. I feared that it would become a piece of content where people could watch it and be like, 'Oh yeah, black lesbians, I know about that, thank you.' Like, masticate it and move on to the next project about Thai race car drivers or whatever. You keep masticating one subculture after another, and every time you do it you keep in mind that there is something called ‘mainstream culture’. But I think mainstream culture is a fabrication, it’s an industry construct. Mainstream culture, what is that? Is it Beyoncé, is it the news, is it war? What do we all participate in together? These little moments that everyone knows happens. Otherwise we all live in a subculture, we all live ‘sub-culture’.
“I started this project at the end of 2002, so that’s 16 years. From 2002 and 2014 I did these interview sessions, sometimes once a year, sometimes four times in a year. I tried to interview everyone that I thought was connected in a world, so I interviewed the DJs, the costume makers, the bouncers, the girls that pick up money, the girlfriends, the main dancers, people that are also there but not the stars, people that are really consistently there, people that don’t work at Shakedown but had other lesbian clubs… I felt that maybe it was important just to record all these different people and see what their experience is. The film’s story is really from 2002 to 2005, with Egypt as a narrator speaking from the point of view of generally now, but that interview was from around 2014. Egypt wanted to be a central figure. She’s a legend.
“Ending the film is artificial. Their lives go on, my life goes on, people continue to work, Los Angeles exists, the idea of the space evolves — the only thing that ends in a final way like death is the film, that’s the only thing that has to end. I wanted to end the film and you still have questions that you have to deal with. But there is some fidgetiness when I do Q&As. Some crowds want more: ‘Explain to me something!’ That’s a contemporary issue with content, an insatiable desire for tidbits of content. But that’s not the job of film. The job of film is to change the way you order information in your own mind. It’s like, ‘Oh, I had a conversation with someone that made me think of something new.’ It’s like a new route in your mind.
“Known storytelling structures produce known stories. The players in the story are new but the limits of their experience are already set. Whereas, in this film, no one person has to defend their position as being good or not. The police are the antagonists in the film but they’re awkward antagonists. You know their development story and it’s kind of hovering and exists from the very beginning till the very end, but you only see them physically very briefly. For the others, Egypt and Jazmine, everyone, no one has to defend themselves. I was watching this documentary recently about teens that get into porn, and instantly from the beginning, you’re forced by the filmmakers to understand that the decision the teens made is wrong. The teens are in a defensive mode as a strategy of the narrative. I didn’t want that.
“My biggest fear with this film was exploitation — where people could watch it and be like, ‘Oh yeah, black lesbians, I know about that, thank you’” — Leilah Weinraub
“What’s special about Shakedown is that it’s Los Angeles at a very special time, when the identity of the city is morphing. It’s 10 years after the riots, it’s post-riots, post-OJ, it’s what I would say is a re-segregated Los Angeles. Everyone went back to the neighborhoods they came from and stayed there. So that’s where Shakedown emerges. It’s all black, it’s not like ‘I want to get out of here,’ it’s hood rich. Many other films keep affirming this story that wherever you’re at and black is wrong and that you have to get out of there to these other places, and it’s like, what is that other place? It’s like Hoop Dreams — there’s a handful of talented black people and we’re gonna cherry-pick them and take them to Howard and the NBA. I am personally hurt by these phoenix stories, these ‘gotta get out of here’ stories. I’m personally offended by these aspirational stories constantly being shoved down our throats.
“After the riots in 1992, the city was so racially charged. I know that history, this story is built on the knowledge and the reality of those things existing, but it’s not what the film is fundamentally about. I thought about including the history more explicitly, but when you show a sequence of riot footage, when you slather the riot all over people, I think it’s manipulative. It doesn’t get you to better understand what the riot was. Maybe this film gives you a better understanding of what the riot was than watching archive footage of a riot.
“The police presence in Los Angeles is — any word that I can think of is too small. Sometimes when I’m driving in Los Angeles I’ll see a police car and it just seems like they got that out of the budget of the Transformers movie. The police and its equipment are somehow connected to Hollywood. When you’re growing up in Los Angeles you have ESP just for cops. You’re like, ‘I can feel a cop car three blocks northwest’, and then you make a right turn and avoid that. If you’re noticed at all, you’ll get pulled over. There’s a museum in the south about the history of lynching. There was an oral history there, talking about how in black families in the south, if you had a son you’d be like, ‘You need to chill out, don’t be so extra, don’t go outside happy and skipping and making a lot of noise because that’s gonna bring attention and that attention will cause your death.’ Don’t do anything wrong but don’t do anything right either. Be at zero, do nothing — if you get noticed, that’s a threat.
“On the other side, with Shakedown, I was thinking about the ‘illegal’, and how in business, usually at the start your business is illegal and then you have to become legal at some point. Do you have the ability to pay the police off, to hire a lawyer, do you have the opportunity to grow your business? That’s harder for Shakedown as a business because the police presence in Los Angeles, their sole job is to keep people in their neighborhoods, enforce segregation, and also show power so consistently that you preemptively self censor. I have a hard time putting this aspect of the film in language. It’s a thing people have a hard time talking about. There’s a Stonewall type narrative where you’re like, ‘This is my space, you can’t come for me, I’m gonna get all my sisters together and we’re gonna protest!’ But Shakedown is not like that. It’s like, ‘I’m gonna pack up my shit, move on and go somewhere else.’
“The structure of the film was a way to talk about labour. In the fact of talking about labour you’re not like, ‘Is it bad or good?’ You’re like, ‘this is my work.’ You go through the technicalities of that, what is that labor? And then, how do you feel about what you do? We could say, ‘dancing for women is better than dancing for men.’ And you can be like, ‘sure!’ Everyone can imagine what that feels like, but the duty of the film was really to show what that feels like. Showing what it feels like to dance for women doesn’t happen in the moments where people are talking. It’s in the explicit sex moments where you see how people treat each other and you’re like, ‘Oh, you can have an explicit sexual moment in public like that, I didn’t know!’
“There was an agreement between me and the people working at the club that I was gonna have this long-form conversation about labour, about something that does not end. There’s no point in your life where you don’t have to work any more. No one told me in high school that work was something you had to do forever. That you had to work to survive was a familiar concept, but the reality of it is much more fucking crazy than I thought it would be. When you talk to people about work it’s kind of like, what they’re doing with the majority of their days, it’s this space where you get to talk about every other part of their lives.
“Documentary filmmakers feel really nervous about using the word ‘stars’, but I feel like there’s this position in between journalistic integrity and this other thing. There’s music, it’s a movie, there’s an original score made for it… at that point you depart from journalism. You are making people actors in a story. I have a writer credit because I thought it was important to say that this story is mine, it’s not the definitive history of the genesis of black lesbian clubs in Los Angeles. I couldn’t be interested in anything enough to be the historian of it. This is my story. This is the way I’m interpreting this amount of time. For there to be some accurate understanding of what really happened, 20 more people need to make something about this.”
This article has been extended for Dazed Digital.
Shakedown is being screened at the ICA at 8pm tonight, June 28. Buy tickets here.