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Stories from the lesbian underground scene

Regissør: Leilah Weinraub

Leilah Weinraub's Shakedown is a fascinating glimpse into the world of African-American lesbian clubs and strip shows.


Shakedown (2018) is based on extensive interviews with women who have been involved in the African-American lesbian nightclub scene in Los Angeles for the past 30 years. The documentary had its world premiere with viewing on the 68. International Film Festival in Berlin's Panorama Audience Award. Seeing the film publicly for the first time to a Berlinale audience – in a city with a long tradition of tolerance to the queer population – was like an echo from another world.

Shakedown Productions. The film opens with a seductive list of exotic names of dancers who appear in this entire movie of the evening, and the audience is prepared for a wonderful journey through a patchwork of archival clips, current show posters and interviews with the leading characters on stage.

The movie runs pretty hectic with 22 scenes at the pace of the African-American women's lesbian underground clubs in Los Angeles in the 1980, 1990 and 2000's. The dancers – known as the Shakedown Angels – are portrayed in the film, along with security guards Big T and Tina. The feeling of getting into a very exclusive, secret world is unavoidable.

With a cut between archival footage and interviews, Weinraub wants to illuminate the underground dance scene and the female artists who found their way there.

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The director is herself an active participant in the lesbian underground scene, and she draws us into the exciting and exotic of the world she documents through interviews and pictures. We see a number of simple flyers for show numbers such as "I-Dallas" and "Jamaica" – stage names for dancers – decorated with pictures of scantily clad women and other outfits. A great soundtrack with the songs the women danced and stripped, mixed with archived sound recordings – we hear the voice of Ronnie Ron, who created, produced and presented the shows under the name "Shakedown Productions". "Check this out. I don't mean to shock anyone, but this is a gay club – please don't show disrespect to my dancers. They dance for girls – just sit down if you don't like it, ”says Ronnie.

To strip for women. The images are replaced by grainy video recordings (or perhaps mobile recordings) from earlier times. They first show the artist known as "Egypt". She dances and strips to an enthusiastic audience while explaining the freedom her persona has given her: "I could be whatever I wanted… a Barbie, a kitten… I could do anything…."

A central figure on the lesbian underground scene – Ronnie Ron – talks about his work and his business ethics in the film.

As she cuts between archival footage and interviews, Weinraub wants to shed light on the underground dance scene and the female artists who found their way there. She boxes out information about their background (a woman says she was a cheerleader in high school and dated guys before she came out of the closet as a lesbian).

"Miss Mahogany" recalls that she was introduced to erotic dancing completely randomly when her dress opened and exposed her breasts without her knowing it, and she was flooded with dollar bills as a tip. "I have entertained for 33 years," she says in an interview, adding that there are little pictures of her career early when she performed in a club where photography was prohibited. Miss Mahogany explains the difference between stripping men and women: Women are a more demanding audience when it comes to beautiful and feminine costumes, because it's the dressed-up stripper that turns them on – when the last garment falls, the show is over.

Glimpse into the secret world. Shakedown is ironic and fun, and offers a truly intimate glimpse into a world few on the outside know. Ronnie Ron has long been a central figure on the lesbian underground scene – as organizer and organizer of shows and club events. She is almost literally a larger-than-life character – a dense piece of woman of a "tractor lesbian". In the film, she talks about her work and her business ethics ("everything must be perfect"), and in archive footage her strong and humorous personality appears in scenes where she offers free drinks to women with attractive toes and flirts with beautiful men.

As a couple of clubgoers say to Weinraub: "The women are sexy, they're great, and there aren't many gay clubs where you can come and be yourself among the insiders." The story is not without dramatic moments: In 2004 became a half-naked dancer arrested for offering sexual services at a club after a civilian police officer tipped uniformed colleagues. The arrest was filmed and included in the documentary. The party continued after police left the club, but pressure from police and the judiciary continued, eventually forcing Ronnie Ron to close.

Shakedown takes viewers into the heart of the environment with this exciting journey through a little explored area of ​​African-American experiences.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Holdsworth is a writer, journalist and filmmaker.

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