Film Review: Shakedown, MQFF

Lesbian femme POC strip night resurrected in archival film Shakedown.
Film Review: Shakedown, MQFF

Shakedown directed by Leilah Weinraub.

Owned and run by women, underground lesbian club Shakedown was a weekly independent POC strip night and party operating in ‘the hood’, downtown Los Angeles, in the late 90s.

Shakedown, at the Horizon venue, enjoyed sexy wild times for eight years until the LAPD, presumably with nothing better to do, raided and ultimately caused it to close down in 2004. Given that nobody was getting hurt and everybody was having fun, it’s meaner than mean that Shakedown wasn’t left alone. The performers were booked for 'soliciting'. Was Shakedown shut down because of homophobia, slutshaming or racism? Were similar events run by white women closed down? Did they even exist? There are a lot of questions that need answering. The film doesn’t attempt to answer them, rather it acts as a time capsule of sorts.

Director Leilah Weinraub was a member of the Shakedown community and this film was put together from around 400 hours of video footage. Weinraub began filming and taking photographs at Shakedown after a friend took her along at the age of 23. Her film is neither doco nor exploration nor raiser of issues nor at all voyeuristic; it just is.

Shakedown at first looks random and homegrown, put together without explanation or framing devices apart from the various chapter headings, such as Money, Love, Power, and so on. It gains its own rhythm as the stories are told.

The  main personalities talk about their respective histories with the club, about their styles of of working, their personal lives, and about where personal exhibitionism met the need to make money. The interviews are chunked between grainy shadowy video footage of performances, allowing a sense of the night and its culture to come alive.

We meet the club’s owner/promoter and MC, Ronnie-Ron, a ‘stud’ who was once a religious straight girl, performers Egypt (who was also a straight girl until she started clubbing), Miss Mahogany, who became Shakedown’s ‘Mother’ (a former drag show host on whose advice Ronnie-Ron created the club in the first place), the charismatic Slim, and Jazmine, the night’s main drawcard. The Shakedown community was compared to the ‘Houses’ of drag culture existing around the same time, arenas where high fashion met high showgirlship, but Shakedown was its own woman; a unique celebration of black femme lesbian performance decades before the notion of 'body positivity' was a thing.

There was even a Shakedown baby born to two mamas, Egypt and her partner, both interviewed before the birth on late night TV with the subheading ‘she’s my babydaddy!’ splashed across the screen. Club members made their way to the hospital on the night of the birth.

Original music by Tim Dewit adds to the sense of seeing into a community both powerful and ephemeral, something perhaps too good and too free to last, although none of the characters are in the least sentimental about Shakedown’s demise.

Shakedown is a rare bird, different from anything else you’ll see. An important treasure of queer history.

Rating: 4 stars ★★★★

82 MINS 
22 March 2019
ACMI, Melbourne Queer Film Festival

Liza Dezfouli

Thursday 14 March, 2019

About the author

Liza Dezfouli reviews film, live performance, books and occasionally music. She blogs about film and other things in a blog called Copy and Cake and writes another, somewhat less-measured blog about feminism and heteronormativity called WhenMrWrongfeelsSoRight. She can occasionally be seen in shows or in short films. For more: