Don’t be fooled by the NC-17 rating; Gene Graham’s “This One’s for the Ladies” may be an uncensored documentary about the male strippers of Newark — and the women who love them — but giant penises have never seemed more gentle or less explicit. Hell, most of the time they’re sheathed in those silly black hoods that exotic dancers have to wear for modesty, and they don’t look like dicks so much as headless church bishops who are hiding some big secrets. This isn’t a smutty movie, or one that’s driven by empty titillation. Made in response to the lack of black representation in the original “Magic Mike,” but endowed with a similar (if more pointed) sensitivity towards economic struggle and collective strength, Graham’s film is drawn to the dingiest rec center in New Jersey because there’s something beautiful about what happens there every Thursday night.
It’s a kind of communal transformation: A multi-purpose space becomes a dance floor, a kitchen becomes a potluck, ex-cons become superheroes, and mothers who are holding their families together by a thread become fangirls. Dollar bills funnel through the air and fall to the floor like confetti, as money is temporarily reclaimed as an expression of joy rather than a symbol of oppression. A jacked dancer who goes by the stage name of “Satan” inspires a youth choir director (alias “C-Pudding”) to shout things like “Take me to hell!” — she almost dies when Satan whips out his fully erect pitchfork. It’s the only moment when Graham’s film really earns the MPAA’s scarlet rating, but you’ll be so happy that C-Pudding gets to experience it.
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Raw, empathetic, and so insistently humane that it plays like a fun 82-minute “fuck you” to the power structures of a country that wants to squeeze the life out of its poorest black environments, “This One’s for the Ladies” is at its best when it slows down and keys in to a small pocket of the culture where strippers and customers really can have co-equal standing in the community that brings them together. The carnal pleasures of the weekly potlucks are very real for the women who finance them — “women get horny!” an older lady named “Momma Joe” insists, knowing full well that people can still be slow to accept that basic fact of life — but these slick and special evenings are held together by a sense of mutual uplift more than anything else.
Even if the dancers weren’t hung and shredded and agile enough to give Channing Tatum a run for his G-string, you get the sense that their fans would still turn out to celebrate these men for subverting the institutionally low expectations that society has for them; for gyrating their way out of the prison-industrial complex. The documentary has precious little rhythm of its own — it careens between its characters at a disorienting pace, introducing new ones rat-a-tat style from start to finish in a way that suggests Graham was simply overwhelmed by the sheer volume of great material that he shot — but its more focused moments resonate with trauma and triumph.
Twin brothers Tyga and Raw Dog are the closest thing the movie has to main characters, and they lead the camera on a powerful tour through the shuttered housing project where they grew up. Graham only cuts to this thread for a few minutes at a time, as if he’s afraid to kill the club vibe by going too long without some drably lit footage of dry humping or simulated oral sex, but the film never quite loses its place. It only takes a moment for Tyga and Raw Dog to reorient viewers to their struggle, and to express the bravery that was required for them to embrace a line of work that made them easy targets for toxic masculinity. Maybe the most touching moment in the entire movie comes early on, when Raw Dog’s 19-year-old son remembers the one time he went to see his dad perform, the kid reflecting on the experience with the same unmistakable mix of pride and embarrassment that teenagers always tap into when they’re trying to express how much they love their parents.
Other standout performers include an endearing Superman obsessive named Fever, a hulk-sized firefighter dubbed Mr. Capable, and a lesbian “dom” called Blaze, who’s spurned by the more “legitimate” strip clubs but finds acceptance and sisterhood among the New Jersey Nasty Boyz (“we can be gay for a while!,” one of the customers yelps with happiness). To that point, the film is just as interested in the women as it is in the men, and “This One’s for the Ladies” is nothing if not true to its title.
Graham might fail to capture the full sweat and spectacle of the stripteases — he lacks Steven Soderbergh’s budget, as well as his eye for low-cost lighting — but his gaze is unwavering. For every sobering aside about Ferguson and the ravages of systemic racism, there’s a close-up of a well-oiled six pack or a sheathed penis. Graham, frustrated that white guys have “a near monopoly” on the representation of black bodies, takes great pleasure in restoring a sense of fun and warmth to a black masculinity that mainstream culture has often coded as violent and predatory. Even in an enervatingly shapeless film that often seems to be telling a dozen stories at once, that feeling can’t help but poke through.
Super LTD will release “This One’s for the Ladies” at Harlem’s AMC Magic Johnson on June 7. The film will expand to more theaters in New York and Los Angeles on June 14.