leilah weinraub spent 10 years documenting a black lesbian strip club

'SHAKEDOWN' is the documentary she made about the incredible women she met there.

by Hannah Ongley
15 October 2018, 8:09pm

“Normally the lesbian [nightclub] vibe is kind of underground, empty, a little sad, or a little emo, you know what I mean?” Leilah Weinraub is recounting her first impression of Shakedown — the all-black, veritably non-emo lesbian strip club she would spent 10 years documenting after convincing the owner to hire her as a photographer. Weinraub’s new film SHAKEDOWN chronicles those moments of spectacle — the uninhibited performances, laboriously bedazzled costumes, and countless dollar bills — through the eyes of others for whom Shakedown was a formative home. Egypt, who speaks with incredible candidness about her past life as a homophobic cheerleader, is as captivating a narrator as she is a dancer. Ronnie-Ron, the aforementioned owner Weinraub approached at 23 years old, was a Jehovah’s Witness before being crowned champion of Shakedown’s first stud category. That Weinraub documents the club’s lifespan as a participant rather than an outsider makes SHAKEDOWN’s climax more devastating, as the symbiotic economies of strip clubs and the establishment eventually collide. Put simply, Shakedown is bust open by the notoriously censorship-obsessed LAPD.

Watching the film for a second time feels like watching a different movie. Maybe because you are watching a different movie — the edit that premiered at the 2017 Whitney Biennial was almost four hours long, while the one currently screening at Gavin Brown is considerably tighter, and various scenes have been cut from various other versions put into the world over the past two years. But regardless of which one you’re watching, the knowledge that Shakedown no longer exists throws its dialogue with the outside world into higher relief. In the club’s underground utopia, cash is a metaphor for self-determination, but it’s also intrinsically material, and it’s not the only form of value either. Weinraub recently spoke to i-D about sexuality, autonomy, and what Shakedown has in common with Hood by Air.

Because you were part of the scene before you starting thinking about making a movie, did you always know that those women — Egypt, Mahogany, and Ronnie Ron — were going to be the stars?
The way it worked is that I went there one night and was immediately like, ‘Can I work here as a photographer?’ My job was always to just watch people, and to record things as they happened. So people like Egypt — she just walked into the room and you immediately knew this person was a legend and special. But also, in interviews, she talks about her life in a really dynamic way that’s just interesting. She has this really American story. You can really understand so many things about America and our times through her. Her family, her grandparents, the way that she was raised, the way that she thinks about work and money… She’s a power woman. But she’s also just really good at sharing her life and performing. People become stars of the film based on whether they want to or not. How much of yourself do you want to give in an interview? You can just tell if someone is lying or has an agenda. So those interview sessions were really heated. I had my own agenda, and it’s really hard. She was willing to submit to that process for a decade.

It’s so rare now to encounter films that took so long to make. I mean you get documentaries with old footage, but it’s normally sourced and assembled pretty quickly. Do you think it’s necessary to spend a long time with subjects to create an accurate portrait of their community? And is this patience almost a lost art?
Yeah. I mean I… yes. There’s just a tremendous amount of pressure to make stuff, you know? I think if you’re a performer — you’re an entertainer — that makes sense. But some things need their own time to grow.

When you were taking photos at Shakedown, before you started working on the film, what and who were you taking them for?
First of all, I had never really seen a lesbian nightclub like that before. I never saw anything where there were performances, it was all girls, everybody was extremely hot, and then this mood was just really fun and elevated. Normally the lesbian vibe is kind of underground, empty, a little sad, or a little emo, you know what I mean? This was not emo at all, in any way. It was very big and showy. I was like, ‘This is fab, and every lesbian needs to know about this.’ So I was taking pictures because the shows were really beautiful, and I thought it needed to be photographed, but the still pictures came out really flat. And it wasn’t about isolated seconds. It’s about every singular part of the room and how it’s working together. It’s about how people are connected rather than how things look when they’re isolated.

Shakedown, a documentary by Leilah Weinraub.
A still from SHAKEDOWN.

When you talk about Shakedown being big and showy I think of the scenes with the money, all that cash just flying around. It’s exuberant and powerful but at the same time kind of depressing in terms of what it says about power structures . How do you see those things as coexisting?
That’s the big question. The film is my answer to that question. It’s my answer and also my request for people to talk about that question: about labor, about the end of labor, about the end of work, about value — dollars meaning value, or value meaning attention, or value meaning community, or self-governance. I want to be having these conversations and SHAKEDOWN — besides being a testament to a culture and individual people in it — is my idea of how to talk about work and labor and money and self-governance and independence. Money is a metaphor: I think about the two best jobs that I could have, are being a professional artist and being a director. I think people are very literate in talking about money as a conceptual thing, and value as something that they can participate in, that is not a top-down structure.

Do you think about police presence in the same way? When the cops come in and shut everything down, it feels like the start of a whole other conversation rather than part of some linear narrative.
Yeah. So usually, the point of a documentary film — I think a normal one — would be that there’s a winner and a loser. It may problematize morality in the first place. I just wanted to talk about money and power and value and independence and self-governance. Then how do you talk about that? You have to illuminate the other structures involved. And in Los Angeles, the police presence is so felt, so strong, and works really fast. It can just burst a bubble with one little touch.

Every time I go to LA I’m shocked by the police presence there. Even in bougie areas, because I’m basically a tourist, it’s insane.
It’s crazy, right? I moved to New York because I was tired of being pulled over driving. I’m in court twice a year. None of my white friends have ever been in court for any driving-related anything. I was just done with that anxiety. So when I moved to New York I had this feeling of total anonymity from the police. That was a huge relief for me.

Leilah Weinraub.
Leilah Weinraub.

Did you always have a sense that the utopia of Shakedown was going to end?
No. Not at all. In no way. Even when the police thing happened I didn’t think that was going to be the ending. I never could have known. It just made me understand how fragile things are.

Do you think there’s any comparable scene in New York or is Shakedown an intrinsically LA phenomenon?
I don’t know, I mean there are so many things in New York — things I know about and things I don’t. New York is so weird — the block you live on you can experience 20 different ways that will take you 20 years to figure out. There are probably things I have no idea about. From what I know about things, LA is a bit more sexy. LA is a bit more women-centered, and New York is very dude. It’s like a boy’s town or a man’s world. It could be changing, just like how the whole world is changing. LA is feminine, but in a way that’s about community. In LA there is more stripping — New York has another kind of dance culture.

I think this was cut in the version I just watched, but there’s a scene where Egypt is talking about the importance of costumes, in the context of gender. It reminded me of Hood by Air and the idea of having autonomy over your gender. Was your work there influenced by Shakedown?
Completely. Working at Shakedown made me have complete confidence in Hood by Air, in that we never had to be underground. I was like, ‘This isn’t an underground concept. This is a concept that the whole world needs. It gave me the ambition to be commercially successful. Also, we’re not the first of [at HBA]. We come from a lineage of people who have been doing this for a really long time. It makes so much sense that I come from a West Coast lesbian subculture, and Shane comes from this East Coast ballroom scene, you know? It was very easy to deliver this fantasy experience but then also make it real.

Shakedown by Leilah Weinraub.
A still from SHAKEDOWN.

Do you think you can have autonomy over your sexuality? In high school, when Egypt was a cheerleader, she thought lesbians were “nasty” and was grossed out when girls hit on her. Did Shakedown open her eyes to something within herself that already existed or did she make an active decision to become part of that community?
I think she just decided. Isn’t deciding having an eye opening experience too? There’s this whole thing that happens when people talk about sexuality as being inborn, and that’s not something I care to participate in because it feels really reactionary, and it has to do with the church and shit like that. I think you can make your culture and make your desire. You can make decisions about it. You can evolve. You can have more control over your life if you’re making decisions all the time. If you’re born with it, something is happening to you.

That makes me think about the idea of biological vs chosen families.
Right, exactly.

Was that idea important for you growing up?
Yeah. I was like, ‘Oh, you can choose your life.’ You can make your life. It’s actually your duty to make your life.

Was Shakedown your first chosen family?
No, not at all. I’ve had the lucky fortune of having really cool friends always. The first group of real friends I had was in junior high in LA. They’re still my best friends. It was like a small utopic moment. Then my family moved to this weird island off the coast of Washington. I really wasn’t into it so I moved to Israel and went to boarding school there. That was its own weird, utopic moment. I eventually went to this anarchist lesbian school — or an anarchist school that a lot of lesbians went to — in Ohio. It was called Antioch. It has a cool radical history. So that was another experience of utopia, where people were working together and generating ideas. I learned a lot about how to talk about things that I was interested in. You could be gay in a sexual way, or you could be like, culturally gay. I became really culturally gay in a way that had nothing to do with sex.

Shakedown, a documentary by Leilah Weinraub.
A still from SHAKEDOWN.

Sounds a bit like 2018.
Exactly — we’re culturally gay, we’re culturally queer. The school was about practical applications of that. It wasn’t about being dogmatic but more like, ‘If this is the life you want, these are the ways you can figure out how to do it. That’s about student government, and being sex positive, and about communication style. It’s approaching things through the lens of race, class, gender, and ability. It was a utopia, in a way, because it gives you this platform of thought. It’s not just about going to a gay bar — it’s about how you see the world and participate in the world.

Was it a positive experience to leave behind? I imagine the school wasn’t shut down by cops.
I think all utopic experiences in my life have ended in tragedy. Even with Hood by Air, I was like, ‘You guys, I have an idea about how this is going to end.’ It’s always sad. I’ve never had a happy ending, no pun intended.

Does any story have a definitive ending? Shakedown is shut down, the women’s lives still continue.
Yeah. There’s not a hard ending. But the utopic bubble bursts. You never really get to go back to your childhood. I’m not nostalgic — I don’t want to return to the past. But I am emo and I remember things.

I only just realized the score was by Tim DeWitt of Gang Gang Dance. It’s quite introspective and not what you would expect in a film about a strip club.
The vibe of the film is more like how I experience things. It felt literally how this club was. Tim is included in the film because he is one of my really good friends, and I had a life the whole time where I was part of different worlds that were entirely unconnected. Tim in no way is connected to Shakedown except through the film — and except because we’re friends. I’ve known him since I was 19 so he’s seen me through the entire process of making the film. We talked about politics, and how the world is, and it was kind of dark and moody. That’s what his vibe in general is. It’s music to think about things to and to deconstruct an idea. The music is not very upbeat but there is a consistent rhythm. It’s music to think about dancing to.

Shakedown, a documentary by Leilah Weinraub.
A still from SHAKEDOWN.
leilah weinraub