How the Director of This One’s for the Ladies Made a ‘Dick-Swinging’ Stripper Documentary

Photo: Neon

The linchpin of This One’s for the Ladies, a new documentary about “strippers and the women who love them,” is a male dancer named Satan. He’s referred to in passing by his dancer colleagues as “Ten,” because even on the stripper circuit in Newark, New Jersey, his full name seems a little out there — a little too sinister. But Satan was a name he liked, so it’s the one he adopted, ignoring skeptical emcees and promoters. After his first performance, he says, a woman stood up and shouted: “If that’s Satan, I’m going to hell!”

This One’s for the Ladies, directed by Gene Graham, is as much about the familiar details of strip clubs — the sweat and booze, the death drops, the full-frontal nudity, the stage names — as it is about the complicated desire that fuels the industry. He wanted to profile the working-class people, “principally black women, women of color,” who frequent the dimly lit VFW halls that serve as self-appointed strip clubs to enjoy themselves and enjoy black men. Despite their similarly fictional names (the clubgoers also use nicknames, like Double Trouble, Poundcake, and C-Pudding), they are familiar; the same woman who leads her church’s children’s choir spends Saturday nights blushing when Satan takes the stage.

Graham also wanted to give voice to the men whose bodies dance onstage — the New Jersey Nasty Boyz, consisting of Satan, Young Rider, Mr. Capable, Fever, and twins Tyga and Raw Dawg, along with a lesbian “dom” called Blaze — whose backstories and motives were never represented in whitewashed cinematic tales like Magic Mike. “I just wanted to make a movie about black folks,” Graham says. “I just wanted to have a conversation with black folks.” Ahead of his movie’s release, Graham spoke with Vulture about finding the subjects of his reality show turned documentary, getting them to open up on-camera, and why it’s important to see black women talking about sexuality onscreen:

I’ve read that part of the idea of This One’s for the Ladies began when you saw Magic Mike. Is that true?
It started about five years ago, when Michael Brown got killed and Eric Garner got killed over on Staten Island. I was angry. I was just angry. I think black folks in general were just kind of up in arms. At the same time, there was Magic Mike, and Magic Mike just didn’t have any people of color in the main lineup, which just wasn’t true at all to me. I got on YouTube, and I stumbled across some [videos] of stripping that I recognize. It’s this group called Lazy Eye Productions out in Cleveland. I’m looking at them thinking, That’s stripping that I know. They were stripping in VFW halls and in community centers. It was like anti–Magic Mike. None of this was happening in some theater or in a glamorous nightclub. It was just real people in Cleveland, people who could just be working at a plant, or they could be TSA agents or whatever.

Sure, people with day jobs.
Just was very down-home! But there was no way that I was going to keep going out to Cleveland [to film them]. I just couldn’t afford it. So I turned to a friend who was a casting agent and said, “Well, why don’t we do like a reality version of this? Like a reality show? We can probably do this in a day or so.” He was like, “Great,” and he found some dancers that we put in a promo [for a show] called Five Kings. He also found Michele, the white lady [in This One’s for the Ladies]. She came in because she loves Punisher, a big New York–based city stripper. So, we shot this thing, and it was a lot of fun and came out really well. But it became very apparent, talking to a couple of reality-TV show agents and people at networks, that they were not going to take this show. And they certainly were not going to take it based on the promo, because the promo had a lot of … dick. There was a lot of dick swinging.

What happened next?
I was basically thinking to myself, No matter what we do to this promo we are never going to get it past network execs. Nobody’s going to want it because they’ll think it’s too strong, their advertisers won’t advertise on it, whatever. I had talked to somebody at Starz, and they were like, “Well, can you make it soft-core porn? Can you make it more porn?” I just didn’t want to be that person to make that show. I didn’t want to do that. So I was just like, “Well, let’s just follow Michele and let’s see how this goes.”

At this point in time, Michele was doing a charity event [with strippers] to raise money for autism research. Sure enough, once we got to Jersey, it was pretty much the same crew of people, the same group of women that I’d seen in that promo from Cleveland. Except I could drive out to Jersey and follow people. That night, actually, was the night that we met C-Pudding and Poundcake. What you see on-screen when I asked her, “So, who’s your favorite dancer?” She said, “Oh. Should I tell him? Should I tell him?” That was the first time that we met these guys.

Your first meeting is basically on-camera? That’s incredible.
Me and Paul, my DP and also my partner in life, were driving back saying, “We’re set. We got it. I think we have a might have a movie here.” Everybody just was really pretty open to us.

Obviously, the dancing is a big part of this, but the documentary does take a macro look at every reason why the men perform and why the women are looking for a space to just cut loose watching them. Was that always how you wanted to present this?
I cut the promo early on, and I think that really sealed the deal with everybody [involved]. They felt like their story was in good hands, that I wasn’t going to fuck it up. I wanted the crazy dancing, I wanted this nightlife world and the women in it. But I also wanted this other part of life outside of the club. To me, that’s kind of like the most important thing. I think it speaks to actually presenting people in a 360-degree manner, which I think is really important.

Was it difficult to get people to open up to you? Not just about their lives but about their desires?
It came really naturally. I don’t know if I’ll ever get that same level of access again. Everybody else was pretty much really open. We went to Poundcake’s kitchen — she’s a cook, she’s Mom. She let us into her apartment, no problem, and we just fired away questions, and she was answering them. C-Pudding came along, and then we got our gear together and drove over to Newark and watched them set up again for the evening.

How did you get the men to open up to you? Specifically Young Rider, who described having a gay uncle who did drag and how he really inherited performance from him.
Young Rider is the one that really kind of took a lot of things and turned it into performance. His costuming was really strong. He’s a great dancer. This didn’t make it into the movie, but he liked Prince. He knew that Prince was short, and he knew that Prince wore heels to try to get more height. He’s short too, so he wore heels. He was one of the first dancers to do that. And so it’s just taking all these things to give his performance something different. Young Rider perfected the long walkout. When you go to these events, before the guys get onto the stage, they have to walk around the room and let everybody see what’s going on, what they look like. He introduced all this stuff into the business. Now everybody does that.

There’s a real intimacy to your footage. With the strippers who are twins, they’re telling us how they started doing this, just sitting in the backseat of a car on their way to their old housing projects. It becomes funny when you see how they’re talking over each other, finishing each other’s sentences.
The twins are crazy. They’re wonderful, and they are really like that. I asked them one question, maybe two, and that was it. They just went off and told the whole story on their own, you know? There was very little direction. That was one of the hardest sequences in the edit. They said something towards the end of that sequence that I thought was really, really important. Those guys are going back and forth about food stamps and their mom: “We had to go and do the shopping with food stamps when we were 13.” It sets up this joke they make about how that’s how they learned how to cook, because they never had girlfriends that knew how to cook. But this little nugget, to me, just kind of seemed like everything: The idea that they’re 13 years old, and their mom was addicted to crack, and they’re taking the food stamps, and they’re trying to take over the household duties. That says everything to me about where they are and what they were trying to do with their lives, given what was on offer.

And at that point in the film, we’ve met their mom. Or, at least, we’ve seen her. It’s not exactly a reveal, but it is emotional to realize that the mom they’re describing — addicted, struggling — is not the mother we’ve seen. That their family was able to survive that intact.
She came through.

Because of their dancing, in a lot of ways.

Did you come into this with any preconceived notions about dancing, about the culture, about these women?
No, I’m pretty judgment-free around stuff like that. The one surprise was the dom dancing [performed by masc lesbian strippers] with Blaze.

How did Blaze come into this?
That first night that we shot, Poundcake’s talking about, “Oh, Blaze, Blaze! I love Blaze!” She has the line where Poundcake says, “I’m gay in New York. If I’m going to Philadelphia, I’m gay.” I was thinking, like, What is she talking about? I’m laughing, I’m caught up in the energy, but I’m not really sure what she’s talking about. The next time we shot with them, though, we saw Blaze dance. She burned the house down! There are other dom performers on the circuit that are better than the male dancers. I loved that because I feel like black communities are painted as universally homophobic, and that’s not true. To see the interaction and to see that women in this straight space are enjoying all sorts of sexual entertainment, I’m like, “More, please!”

It’s important! There’s not a lot of visual history for purely sexual desire to be seen through a black woman’s gaze.
I say to myself, “I just haven’t seen this movie.” I haven’t seen this before, and now here it is: Here’s a black woman talking about sex and desire in a pretty plain, straightforward manner, and there’s a fluidity to the whole thing, too. You can enjoy a female dancer without necessarily being gay.

What was great about Blaze’s reception is how the emcee that night says something like, “Support women! This is one of our own performing this well! We need to support black women, so give her your singles!”
We shot that in Cleveland, and she did that death drop. It was just like that: “Go up there and throw a dollar on that girl!” While we were shooting, I was like, “Yes. Don’t pause, let’s keep recording on that.” She’s saying something that’s so powerful. “Support her, support us.”

Satan explains the origin of his stripper name.

Were there sequences that you knew you couldn’t cut from this movie?
I always knew that when Young Rider talked about being in control, that felt really powerful. He says, “When I’m dancing, I feel in control. What I say goes.” I just thought to myself, as I’m sitting at the editing bay, I feel like he’s talking for me about all the things that we’re dealing with. It’s like a stripper analogy to talk about all the shit that black people have to go through. But in our community, in the places that we create, we are in control.

How has making this changed or informed how you see desire in your own life?
I think it’s just better if we’re honest about what we like and what we don’t like and how we like it. There shouldn’t be any shame associated with any of this stuff.

One last question: What would your stripper name be?
Oh my God. Raw Dawg is the one who names people. He’d probably call me Big Gene.

How a Dick-Swinging, Anti–Magic Mike Documentary Came to Be