When Leilah Weinraub screened her documentary, Shakedown —about a legendary underground Los Angeles black lesbian strip club—at MoCA this past July, it felt like a homecoming, in more ways than one. “Everyone showed up. It was like everyone in the film, plus everyone from all my different lives in Los Angeles, plus my mom and my sister. It was maybe the most important day of my life.”
Weinraub shot over 400 hours of footage at Shakedown beginning in 2002, starting with still photography and moving to film and interviews with the club’s dancers. It’s very intimate, and Weinraub still marvels at being granted full access to such a private space. “It was a really big deal to let someone come into your club and take photos of the show that was happening,” she says. “[Shakedown founder Ronnie-Ron] was so open and supportive.”
Weinraub has a knack for seeing something where others do not; she’s best known as a co-founder of groundbreaking fashion label Hood By Air, which re-launched with her at the helm in 2012 and enjoyed critical success not only for its subversive designs, but for its avant-garde, nontraditional presentations. Weinraub and co-founder Shayne Oliver put the brand on a hiatus of sorts last year.
Here, Weinraub discusses why nighttime is so important to her, how asking others questions helped her find answers for herself, and why even children should have a private life.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
On getting kicked out of art school
I moved to New York from Los Angeles to go to Bard for its MFA program, but they didn't really like my work. Actually, I got kicked out. It's funny to think about it now, but back then I was infuriated; I felt diminished, you know? I went to Antioch College for undergrad, where there were no grades. Bard just didn’t have the same kind of value system. There, it was like America's Next Top Model: They say, "Welcome to the show!" and then they break a bitch down. Maybe by the end, they build you up and send you out. But I just wasn't used to that kind of education. I had a chip on my shoulder, but that's what led to another kind of energy: I had a point to prove—and I also wanted to be financially successful. From then on, I said, “Nobody's allowed to tell me what to do, or if it's going to work or not.”
On the night that changed her life
The first night I ever went to Shakedown, I asked if I could have a job. Honestly, I would have picked up money off the floor. Instead I asked, "Do you need a photographer?" I had a background in film. I was 23, and [the staff at Shakedown] was very open and supportive. [Shakedown owner] Ronnie said, "Yes, sure, you can take pictures," which was a big deal because what was happening was very intimate. She gave me a pass allowing me to come into the club free any time it was open. It was a handwritten note on the back of a flyer that like, “Leilah has permission to all parties, at all times. Ronnie." I still have that piece of paper—it’s in the film.
"I used to think that everything you needed to know about the world and the way it works you learn at night. It’s a lot more about feeling than seeing. There's less light, but more feeling."
On feeling versus seeing
There's like a different side of the world that's awake at night. I used to think that everything you needed to know about the world and the way it works you learn at night. It’s a lot more about feeling than seeing. There's less light, but more feeling. The coolest thing about working in nightclubs is that you learn how to give people an experience that they'll never forget. It's about all the things that it takes to make that happen: an entrance, the mood, how you find out about it, the space, how much light there is, what you can see, and what's not illuminated.
On how making Shakedown helped her find herself
[When I was making the film,] I’d go into those interviews with an agenda, but I’d have to also be open to that agenda changing. It's tense: You have to continue to push forward and ask people questions that are sometimes obtuse and sometimes personal. A lot of my questions were about family and familial systems—what you inherit from your family, and what you make on your own. And actually, a lot of that was stuff that I was personally working out and wanted to talk about. I would bring it to these conversations with people who were legends and stars, and it was cool that they were willing to go there with me.
On why she doesn’t believe in coming out
I didn’t really come out. [My parents] actually told me. They were suggesting the possibility when I was super young, like 11. At the time, I felt like I was too young to be talking about [sexuality]. I'm still private, but it's more conceptual than it has to do with sex. I’m not really into coming out as a concept. I especially don't like it that gay people have to come out. I think that that's totally rude and lame. I don't think that you need to declare your sexuality. And I think that children should have a private life, and sensual autonomy. I don't think that adults should be part of that, you know?
On finding an audience
Shakedown has a small theatrical release in the UK in November, but I’m looking for a way to distribute the film in America. It's had a festival tour already, but it’s still really about getting more people to see it. People think there's no audience for this film, and that's completely untrue. The same thing happened with Hood by Air, too. People were like, "There's no audience.” People think that Hood by Air just emerged out of nowhere, but our audience was always there, you know? We changed the landscape of fashion, and now I'm trying to do the same thing with film.
25 Strong is a new series highlighting people who have broken barriers and changed culture in 2018. Created with Reebok.
Shakedown is screening at New York's Gavin Brown Enterprise through October 24.