Amassed from 300 hours of footage shot almost entirely by director and Hood by Air CEO Leilah Weinraub, the synesthetic vérité documentary Shakedown manages to compress its runtime down to 82 minutes of pure space. Following the eight-year run of its titular, L.A.-based, black lesbian strip-night and underground party series, Shakedown foregoes a tired, conventional documentary structure in favor of a more textural morphology that draws viewers into its world in a way that is at once hypnagogic and lushly formed.
Weinraub began documenting Shakedown nights at the age of 23, starting off as the still photographer for the 2000s parties until she began video-recording the Thursday and Friday night performances with an SD prosumer camcorder. After working with the footage over the course of sixteen years, Weinraub’s mindful handling of her amassed media gives it a captivating collage quality that, rather than flattening and re-articulating its individual parts, is organic in its patterning and wholly sensorial.
A chapter rundown, acting almost as a citational emcee of sorts, precedes the film’s complete immersion into the Shakedown world. Weinraub weaves through her materials—lo-fi, DV footage of the party and its antecedents during the 1990s; interviews, performances, and backstage footage of the Shakedown performers (The Shakedown Angels) and the night’s stud creator and emcee, Ronnie Ron; onscreen stills of past Shakedown event flyers—with the studied ease and concentrated movements of a director who has long incubated and fiercely protected her treasure of images.
Shakedown is a film about black queer futurity that is beyond intellectualism—there is no compulsion on the part of the film or its makers to define the spaces that it moves through and the bodies which move through such spaces. Its portraits are ripe with the intimacy of shared experience that is free-flowing and unbothered by constraints of category or name. The film’s star, Egypt, a beloved Shakedown performer, kicks off the film being interviewed by Weinraub where she speaks of her beginnings in the Shakedown scene. Her own history of sexuality runs parallel in as much as finding new spaces of queer being gives shape to new ways of queer feeling.
There is a radicality in the film’s ability to give over space to black queer experience rather than to shape black queer experience into a knowable form. It removes the customary directives of time and space and instead sees the power of black queer subjectivity, ever present and ever in flux, as its guiding praxis. The film sees both in and of itself its own queerly heterogeneous audience and makes no moves to hail those either unknowing of or indifferent to its languages. In short, Shakedown is FUBU made cinematic.
This isn’t to say that the film isn’t without its taxonomies. Shakedown’s relationship with ball culture is glimpsed in situ with performances by Mahogany, the legendary mother of the House of Fish, captured on DV; Egypt’s performance personas are a fascinating series of reinventions that see her move between a multitude of characters and scenarios with an almost habitual ease; Jazmyne, the Queen of Shakedown, is struck by her reputation as a wifey type, comically countering, “It is a compliment, but not in no strip club, bitch!” just before she cleans out her audience of their dollars bills with a brazen, thrilling, and heavily pussy-popped performance; Ronnie herself speaks of the movement she’s made towards her current self-determination as a stud, have previously identified as a hard femme. What Shakedown makes work is its documenting of these narratives rather than a dominating their self-fashioning.
Shakedown and its cast of players take on an almost mythic quality through both the film’s affectionate star-making and in its construction. With the film’s attention to personalities within the scene, the Shakedown girls are built up as legends of a self-made world that isn’t quite fantasy, but is surely fantastical. Shakedown’s use of interviews with the Angels, through to Ronnie Ron and security guard Sharon Hamilton, outlines the social network that has grown around the Shakedown nights. Performers, organizers, makeup artists, and patrons are notated with care by the film—this is a world of legends, yes, but it is a world where presence itself is an equal (and crucial) part of the myth-making. The social imagination of Shakedown is one that comprises not just the driving twin forces of sexuality and desire, but the recognition of a collective experience.
At the film’s presentation at the 2018 Images Festival’s opening night in Toronto, Weinraub spoke to the character of sound in Shakedown and her desire to have it mimic the aural qualities of being within the Shakedown space. The transmuted electronic sound design kicks in and out intermittently and with a quiet, contemplative restraint. Weinraub’s utmost strength is in her own intimacy with the material and community at hand alongside a reverence and utmost respect for the origins of its forms. She doesn’t reproduce Shakedown in moving image form, but rather, through a thoughtful use of materials at hand, points towards the distinct elements which give it presence.
Weinraub presents the space of Shakedown as atmospheric and embodied, a space that is almost, but not quite, outside of time and territory. This utopic underground of black lesbian sexuality finds itself ruptured, not by the presence of straight audience members (Shakedown performer I-Dallas rightly reprimands her audience, “If you straight, you don’t need to be in the front!”), but by the presence of police, intent on targeting a space of black queer joy and sexual desire so antithetical to their project of protection and protection of personhood.
The film offers a fascinating look at the intersection between black queer space and underground structures of labor—it gives shape to channels of power originating both within and external to the expanse of Shakedown. The cash flow economies of the space are intimate and direct in their routes; these movements and exchanges of capital and resource can be traced amongst patrons, organizers and performers in paths that seem liberating in their ability to self-prioritize, self-regulate, and self-fashion. A regular attendee by the name of Hot Dog speaks to the encroachment of state capital just peripheral of Shakedown’s geographic space, noting, “I was here before they built the freeway.” All of which is to say, this system does not offer an impenetrable alternative, by any means—even Shakedown could not survive the inherently consumptive prerogative of the external powers which surround it, having shuttered its main venue in 2004 due to ongoing trouble with local police. However, the moments it reserves in its runtime for the potential of black queer space seem limitless.
Shakedown is showing October 12 – 14 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn, and November 6 at The Royal Cinema in Toronto as part of the series "Black Gold."