It's easy for filmmaker Leilah Weinraub to describe Shakedown, a black lesbian strip club in Los Angeles.
"Shakedown is really a club where girls go when they first realize they're gay... and it's the kind of place where amazing things are happening all the time," she says by phone. "It's a birthday party club, where every night there is a celebration in the crowd of someone's birthday or the opening of a new business or a graduation from school."
Her movie of the same name, Shakedown, which is about the club, requires a more in-depth explanation.
As she describes it, the movie is a love letter to Los Angeles and represents how the black lesbian community developed. Following the Shakedown club and its star performers Egypt, Jazmyne, and Ronnie Ron is key, Weinraub says, to understanding how they represent Los Angeles's black lesbian scene. But the dancers also give Weinraub the chance to explore two of the movie's overarching themes: how queer culture is created and how work creates one's identity. (Among the other themes in this coming-of-age documentary: how the club creates alternative families; how the families create community in the most unlikely of places; and how the cycle of money flows in the community.)
Taking from the playbook of Studs Terkel and his book Working, which she first encountered while attending Antioch College, she interviews the dancers about what they do, how they do it, and how their work has shaped them. (With six years of recording the club on Thursdays and Fridays behind her, like Terkel, Weinraub meticulously researched for this movie.) As the dancers' work creates their identity, the dancer's work thus creates the identity of that community. Because it is "not a club with just a striptease but a show," the performers are not stripping apart from the audience but in fact engaging them in a collaborative work of art. Weinraub sees this as an essential part of how the community is built.
Tipping the dancers is a part of any striptease. But at Shakedown, "tipping [the dancers] is part of the show," she says. "Because there's no stage, the women in the crowd actually have to step in the middle of the dance floor to tip the performer. This is a place where women are spending lots of cash and I saw that this payment was also part of the show; it's kind of like you're showering the dancer with money... it's a symbol of appreciation... And that's how we proceed with the movie: that the money makes cycles in the community from the patron to the dancer to the dancer supporting her own life with her kids and ultimately recreating her show."
Weinraub believes that when it all comes down to it, the fantasy that the dancers create bring the movie together: "The dancers say they're putting on a fantasy [and what I explore] is the power of fantasy and that illusion. It is about how it's transformative: to be entertained, to be beautiful."
In a way, transforming the movie's audience is what she hopes for too.