Hood By Air’s Former CEO Made Your Favorite New Cult Nightclub Film
Leilah Weinraub’s Shakedown is now screening at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise.
Photograph by Brian Dowling for Getty Images.
In the early 2000s, Leilah Weinraub was the “video lady” at Shakedown, an underground black lesbian strip club in Los Angeles. The footage that she shot while working there eventually became her film of the same name: Shakedown. It debuted at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, playing until October 24th, with daily screenings and a series of events, including the Family Awards and Lesbian Ball (hosted this past Sunday, it was billed as an “extravaganza dedicated to supporting teamwork, love, unity, sexuality, and most importantly family values”). The film, told through the performances and accounts of the club’s personalities—its promoter and emcee, Ronnie-Ron, and its “angels,” Mahogany, Egypt, Slim, and Jazmine—is a study of a community organized around arousal, dollar bills, and outside oppression. “With Shakedown,” Weinraub says, “my idea was to problematize your even being in your own body.”
But as much as Shakedown is a record of an underground scene, Weinraub is resistant to the idea that the film, her first, is a documentary. She has a writer’s credit on Shakedown and calls it “its own capsule”—a subjective encapsulation of a specific scene at a specific time, rather than, say, a definitive account of black lesbian sexuality.
Brought by a friend to the club, it was immediately clear to Weinraub that Shakedown was a film set and its fixtures were camera-ready. “The first day that I was there,” she says, “I was like, this obviously is going to be a movie; it needs to be a movie; everyone in the room was just like, a huge star.” She persuaded Ronnie-Ron to employ her as club photographer, then transitioned to making videos of the performances (she was simultaneously pursuing an MFA in film at Bard College).
The film ends with the club being shut down by police in 2005. The L.A. in which Shakedown existed, on the cusp of gentrification more than ten years after the riots sparked by the acquittal of four police officers who beat Rodney King, is manifest, but it’s not a film explicitly about resistance. “The film asks you about your own life,” Weinraub says. “How do you make your own life? What is work? How do you make your own utopia? If you want something, does it exist already or do you have to build it?”
Weinraub’s film inspires ready comparisons to Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary about New York’s ballroom and voguing scene in the ‘80s; both are intimate portrayals of site-specific queer communities, and both required lengthy production processes. Livingston spent six years making Paris Is Burning, and Weinraub conducted interview sessions for the film over a twelve-year period, between 2002 and 2014. She had over 400 hours of footage of the club, and, in addition to the final 71-minute version currently showing at the gallery, there are several other cuts in existence. (The original version Weinraub submitted to Sundance Film Festival was four hours long. “I thought you could stuff everything you want to into a movie—that it’s like a crazy subway sandwich, and you're just like, ‘I want all the toppings!’”)
Paris Is Burning has arguably been instrumental in the mainstream assimilation of what was, at the time, underground drag culture. Could this film inspire a wider replication of the Shakedown scene, or can she see the scene catching on again, newly? “I can't like, comment on culture right now,” Weinraub says cautiously. But she does feel there’s been a shift from there being “nothing for women” to a growth in female, and specifically lesbian, club culture. As for her role; “I’m just trying to give some new ideas, like keep throwing out new ideas and see if people are into that.”
Weinraub has a knack for appearing at seemingly unconnected spots in mainstream and niche culture. Early on in her career, while still at college, she assisted American History X director Tony Kaye on his next film, Lake of Fire. Around 2007, she had a brief stint as Paris Hilton’s stylist (she is from L.A., after all!). Her most high profile gig was serving as the CEO of Shayne Oliver’s brand Hood By Air, from its launch in 2012 until it went on hiatus last year. Shakedown, she says, was a formative influence on the brand. “Shakedown taught me how to do Hood By Air, and have no second guesses at all, and be like, ‘No, we’re doing it exactly how we want to, and not like anything that anybody else has done before.’” Hood By Air began at a time, when, as she puts it, “No one was focusing on menswear, at all, no one cared about men, or their bodies, or if they had, I don’t know, personalities.” She see similarities to current lesbian culture, club and otherwise: “Right now there’s a dearth, there’s a lack, and there’s a lot of space for a lot of new ideas…. There is this whole wide open place for—what is the word for it? Women?”
“If you want something, does it exist already or do you have to build it?”
Club culture also informed Hood By Air’s identity. “Me and Shayne came from just being out at night forever, since we were teenagers…. And just knowing the levels that you get [to] at night, and bringing those feelings outside of the utopia, and the blurry fog—you know, [it is] the nighttime presenting in the daytime.” This idea of a utopian moment, and of containing, encapsulating, and, in some way, reproducing it, is the unifying theme in Weinraub’s work. She is particularly interested in “activating public spaces,” she says, citing Hood By Air’s fashion shows as some of the most interesting work achieved by the brand.
When she first finished making Shakedown, Weinraub thought it might function best if viewed on the internet, with the “alone together vibe” of a YouTube video. After it premiered at Berlin, though, she came to realize that a public screening was intrinsic to the work. It is a “public sexual experience,” she says, “watching it with other people in a theatre in a room…. It’s fidgety, it’s twitchy.... You just have to deal with other people in the room.”
Indeed, what’s striking about Shakedown onscreen is its unabashed physicality. It’s a fundamentally sensual film. The footage is explicit and lascivious, and money participates in, and drives, the show—bills flood the floor as the angels perform. Physical cash—rarer than ever—has become something of a symbol of vice; when it does appear, it feels illicit, both dirty and sexy (think Rihanna’s video for 2015’s “Bitch Better Have My Money”). There’s a strange thrill, in Shakedown, of seeing so much paper money. Online, I can imagine the film downloading as advertisements for “hot babes in your area” flash at the sides, but from seeing it at Gavin Brown, I can assure you that a public screening simulates some of what the club might have offered.