Best. Lesbian. Week. Ever. (February 4, 2011): Leilah Weinraub and “Shakedown,” Gabrielle Lindau’s “These Showers Can Talk”



Out director Leilah Weinraub’s Shakedown is a feature-length documentary about work, money, love, race, class, gender, sexuality, community and culture. It’s also a film about a black lesbian strip club in Los Angeles

Shakedown focuses on the stories of three women, “Ronnie Ron, the creator and emcee of Shakedown, a large butch/stud lesbian and former Jehovah’s Witness; Egypt, a single mother, beauty pageant fanatic, and dedicated self – (re)inventor; and Jazmyne, the complicated and sometimes conflicted ‘Queen’ of Shakedown.”

In Shakedown, Weinraub says, “We go through the process of their labor with them and record what they do, and how they feel about what they are doing.”

Funds raised in the current campaign for Shakedown will get the filmmakers through post-production as well as promotion and distribution. The Kickstarter campaign is running through Monday, February 7, and the filmmakers are looking for support above and beyond their $25,000 minimum.

We talked to Weinraub about why it’s important to tell the story of Shakedown, the performance of femininity in the club (and in the documentary) and why making a film about stripping is empowering. For our readers who are unfamiliar with the world of the lesbian strip club scene in Los Angeles, can you tell us a bit about it and what makes it so unique?

Leilah Weinraub: Well, from the street Shakedown’s building is very plain. There are no signs or banners. By word of mouth the club is known to be a place that one would go to for their first experience in a gay nightlife.

Inside, the club is decorated with balloons and theme colors of the night. The theme of the night always celebrates someone in the crowds birthday, or a graduation, or the opening of a new business. The dancers come out in dramatic elaborate outfits, special ordered and custom made to match the colors and theme of the night. There are no poles or elevated stages, so the circle of women patrons, grooving to the music themselves, have to step into the center of the room to tip the performers.

Shakedown the film depicts a system, one that functions like a family, put into motion for all of the reasons that people need a family, support financial and emotional, and a place of self-growth. The film is about work, and how work forms identity. Its also a history of Los Angeles, or a history of Los Angeles’ black lesbian nightclub scene, and its genesis.

AE: Just how revolutionary was the idea of “women dancing for women” when the show first launched?

Very. Cabrinni, one of the creators of the first lesbian strip club nights in 1992 said that women were mortified by it. They said, “why do we have to be like men” and I asked her how she dealt with that and she told me her response was “I said ‘F–k you’ and kept it moving.”

AE: On the website for the film, you state that Shakedown is about “high femme female interpretations.” Tell us more about what you mean by that and how it’s depicted in Shakedown.

I feel like people in general like to see femininity performed, a lot of stars do that, like Justin Bieber or Prince, when women do it they take it to another level. Beyoncé, is also doing a type of drag, she is doing high femme drag. The film goes through the process of labor with the dancers and details exactly how this high femme look is created. We get too see what a weave is really like, what nail extensions really are and talk to them about what it feels like to create an illusion or a fantasy for an audience.

AE: How has Jewel Thais-Williams been involved in the making of Shakedown?

Jewel has maybe the longest running African-American owned and operated gay club West of the Mississippi. Her club is an institution in LA. Because she owns and operates her own business she’s been able to see three generations evolve out of her club and open up a free health care and acupuncture clinic. In the 80s and 90s the club was instrumental in minority AIDS activism in LA, her club is a historical monument. To understand Shakedown, it’s important to understand the history of other black gay clubs in Los Angeles.

Jewel’s club is in the neighborhood that I grew up in. She had a restaurant in the 90s called Jewel’s Catch One Burger that my family would go to. My parents also frequented her club in the 80s and 90s and my mom is currently her patient at the acupuncture center. Jewel was gracious enough to do an interview for this film.

AE: As both the Shakedown filmmaker and the person who videotaped the shows for so many years, you occupy a unique position in both the documentation process and (potentially) the documentary itself. How did you reconcile those roles as you made the film?

I felt like my job was to tape the shows and do that beautifully, to ask the dancers questions from an informed place and also let them tell their own story. I feel like I had the opportunity to be quiet and watch people, the film is a meditation on the ideas of created family and work and I don’t think those two roles are in opposition, instead they worked together to create a subjective film experience.

AE: You mention on your site that for the first two years you recorded the performances and created video installation at the club “channeling back an instant history to the creators of the moment.” What was the reaction to that installation (from the patrons and the performers)? Have you been encouraged by both groups to move forward with Shakedown?

When I played the videos back in club people loved it. People would be glued to the screen, but I kind of felt like it took away from the show. The night is all about anticipation and the videos were distracting from that.

The women in the film want people to know their story and their support for its production is measured over the many years of their honesty and willingness to participate in being documented.

AE: How have the lives of your three main subjects changed since you began shooting the footage at the shows?

LW: Ronnie-Ron
is the CEO and founder of Shakedown Productions. Ronnie is the woman behind the voice of Shakedown. She hosts the nights on the microphone, hyping the crowds by telling jokes, keeping people in line, and teaching them how to tip.

Egypt is a star dancer at Shakedown, and Mahogany is like the grandmother of Shakedown, a trans-woman who is a lesbian, a stripper/ entertainer and grandmother.

There is Jazmyne, the elected Queen of Shakedown. She loves dancing for women, in stark contrast to her full time job at a nude club for men. She loves theater and fantasy. Jazmyne loves being loved, you know, she is a celebrity personality. One night Shakedown was raided by the police and Jazmyne was dramatically handcuffed and held nude in the middle of her act, in the middle of the dance floor. She was forever changed by this humiliating event, and Shakedown the club was shut down.

The film shows what happens when this place, a place like no other, is taken away. Some really interesting and intense things happen. Jazmyne starts to recreate the club in her backyard, while Egypt tries to teach her kids how to transform their lives via pageantry. The film then becomes a meditation on the idea of family and created family, and work. Those two ideas are things that are so important to gay and straight people alike, family and work. They are how people identify and find meaning in their lives.

AE: It seems as though a big part of the drive behind Shakedown is to prevent the stories of these people, these events, from being forgotten. Is that something you’ve seen happening within other communities of which you’ve been a part?

Yes, definitely.

Another important thing to mention is I went to Antioch College in Ohio and intended on majoring in religious studies but ended up in a major that is special to that school called “Media and Social Change.” The school was very radical and awesome. During my freshman year, Antioch’s graduating class had invited Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther sitting on death row convicted (or framed) for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer, to address the commencement. This was a highly controversial event and one of lasting importance to me. I learned about media in the hands of the people, used for telling the stories of the people. It was about the social value of the content. Antioch is now closed, the teachers there fired. There is no other place in America like Antioch.

AE: Have you encountered any negative feedback or reactions from lesbian audiences because of the subject matter (stripping)?

Making a movie about stripping is both contentious and empowering, I have felt people questioning if this is feminist or if its going to do a disservice to the black community. I feel like now is the best time this film could come out, before Obama and Precious it was very difficult to make films about black people without having that be the only defining cultural document. Right now in this climate people are both receptive and interested, those people being from all walks of life and all races.

AE: What’s your ultimate goal for Shakedown artistically and commercially?

Artistically, I want people to watch the film and see the amazing people that are in it, and say “I get her,”… I want people to watch the whole film and say “That made me understand my life better.”

Commercially, I think people with decision making power have very conservative views about what the public is interested in watching. This film can prove those assumptions very wrong. A lot of the work of getting the film into the pubic we will have to take into our own hands and that is exactly what we’re asking for help with now. Our Kickstarter page is an opportunity to raise funds through the donations of the people who want to see the film and this is the beginning of the process of self-distribution, promotion and production. The Christian films on Kickstarter do very well, they have the understanding of how to harness their communities resources and create a document that is for their community, one film is 400% funded, totaling over $300,000.The gay community has that same potential.

Give to the Shakedown Kickstarter campaign, and get updates on the film via the Twitter and Facebook pages and the official website.

by Karman Kregloe

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