'Shakedown' Remembers the Early-Aughts Angels

'Shakedown' Remembers the Early-Aughts Angels

Though the fashion crowd may primarily know Leilah Weinraub for her work as the former creative director and CEO of Hood By Air, what's lesser known is that during her tenure at the groundbreaking brand, she was also finishing her experimental art documentary, Shakedown. And while the entire making-of process took almost 15 years, this extremely personal labor of love has finally found its way online — and is getting the due it deserves.

Radical queer filmmaking at its finest, Shakedown is focused on the Shakedown Angels, an all-Black collective of femme and stud performers that owned and operated a roving series of underground lesbian stripper events in LA during the early-aughts. Presented as a stream-of-consciousness narrative culled from over 400 hours of footage, Shakedown grants us an intimate glimpse into the Angels' world via Weinraub's footage, archival recordings, Shakedown promotional materials, and a number of interviews with creator/MC Ronnie-Ron, scene mother Mahogany, and "Queen of Shakedown" Jazmine, as well as dancers Egypt and Slim. And while the camera is mostly focused outwards, the value of Weinraub's own connection to the Shakedown family as prominent driver of the film's narrative can't be understated either.

After graduating from Antioch College, the filmmaker moved back to LA and started going to the event after being handed an eye-catching flyer for a Shakedown-hosted graduation party that featured the guest-of-honor in her cap and gown, "but just a row of naked girls on the back."

"Instantly, on the first night, I was like, 'I have to work here,'" Weinraub said, explaining that she started by taking photos for the event — though she found the still imagery "uninviting" and reminiscent of "photography about strippers that I had seen before, which I thought was really stale and frozen in time."

Weinraub recalled, "I was like, 'There's something about the place that's really alive. It's about the talking sounds, the way people are talking to each other, their interactions, the lighting, and everything. So I just started taping there instead. It just was so beautiful, and for many years I just taped. Then I would tape the shows and then edit it back in a way that I like, and give it to people whose party it was. So it was a nice ecosystem, I guess."

Amidst all this, she started plotting out the beginnings of a film about Shakedown driven by the perspective of the Angels themselves — a consideration that can, unfortunately, fall to the wayside for some documentarians.

"I just didn't really like the intention of other filmmakers. I just didn't really understand it, and I didn't think that it really fulfilled what their original interest in the subject matter was," she said, as we discussed her examination of other recent media representation of sex workers. "Of course, I'm informed by other films about sex work, but basically what I try to do is just do my job, which is listen, ask questions, and not come into the question asking scenario with my own judgments about it."

And while the word "sex worker" may have not been overtly used within the lesbian strip club community during the early-aughts, regardless, Weinraub still wanted to ensure that the narrative at its core stayed true to those it purported to represent — something that led her to eschew any outside funding or studio direction.

"I didn't have anybody that funded the film that was rushing me on it, so I didn't even necessarily have to finish it," she said. "I didn't have a set container that it needed to fit into or a narrative needed to fit into [a studio's] stream of narrative. So I was not only financially independent, but the story was independent. It had to be whatever was there."

Tangentially, Shakedown's spotlight on the intersection of race and class within an underground, all-cash economy is another prominent theme. Granted, this shouldn't come as a surprise due to Weinraub's background in labor-centric topics and interest in the use of consciousness-raising films as a tool for collectivizing. From safety to the lines of identity as informed by their jobs, Weinraub's careful focus on these oft-ignored discussions is a central component of Shakedown. Facilitated by Weinraub's approach to interviewing, it's obvious that she eschews judgmental, pointed questions in favor of allowing the Angels' own perspective on their labor to drive the film's narrative — and the result is a film that makes us feel like a confidante and friend to the Angels, rather than a detached onlooker.

Granted, there's still a lot more story to be told, as the current version — cut to a more digestible 71 minutes for its 2017 screening at the Whitney Biennial — is primarily focused on a specific 3-year period. But for now, Weinraub is happy that the film found a home on Pornhub as the first non-adult film to be featured on the site. After all, she had always planned to pursue an independent distribution strategy for the film, and so based on her positive existing relationship with the adult entertainment streamer, releasing Shakedown via the platform just seemed like the natural choice.

"I'm watching it unfold. It was really just a partnership that was supportive," she added, before saying that while the widespread reception to the film has been an incredible experience, "The story about it or the understanding of it really comes after."

But what exactly does "after" entail? Well, according to Weinraub, she's particularly interested in producing an "addendum" film about Egypt, whose roots in a "very middle-class, stable working-class family" is a sharp juxtaposition from the gig economy she works in now. Weinraub is also working on more films now as a participant in the Sundance Institute's prestigious Art of Nonfiction lab — so definitely expect to hear more from her soon.

In the meantime though, you can watch Shakedown on Pornhub until the end of March, here.

Welcome to "Sex with Sandra," a column by Sandra Song about the ever-changing face of sexuality. Whether it be spotlight features on sex work activists, deep dives into hyper-niche fetishes, or overviews on current legislation and policy, "Sex with Sandra" is dedicated to examining some of the biggest sex-related discussions happening on the Internet right now.

Stills courtesy of Shakedown