Let’s just get this out of the way early: Yes, the NC-17 rating for This One’s for the Ladies is justified. You will see full frontal, and it will be impressive. But it will not be what audiences talk about the most after seeing this documentary. The strippers’ dance moves and abdominal muscles are the spoonfuls of sugar that help make the film’s slices of American life easier to stomach. You’ll go into the film ready to see some shiny, rippling flesh, and you will not be disappointed, but you’ll leave thinking about community and justice.
Directed by Gene Graham, the movie follows not only a select crew of exotic dancers but also the community of women who follow and support them. Twins Tyga and Raw Dog are founding members of the New Jersey Nasty Boyz, a troupe that includes entertainers like Young Rider, Satan, Mr. Capable, Fever, and lesbian “dom” Blaze. Sweet Tea serves as a crowd-pleasing master of ceremonies. Meanwhile, loyal fans with nicknames like Double Trouble, Poundcake, and C-Pudding show their love with pithy one-liners, sponsored events, and perhaps most important, money where their mouths want to go.
It’s easy to compare the documentary to the Magic Mike franchise, loosely based on the former life of star Channing Tatum. Like those movies, This One’s for the Ladies is best viewed with a group of friends who can gasp and giggle together. And these films all have “stripper with a heart of gold” storylines, dedicating significant chunks of screen time to the dancers’ entrepreneurial dreams of how they will pull themselves up by their G-strings to elevate themselves out of dire circumstances.
But where the Magic Mike movies focus on the power of male friendships, This One drills into the dancers’ backgrounds. Fever glows with pride when he reveals he is the first in his family’s generation to graduate high school. Tyga and Raw Dog give a tour of the shuttered housing projects they once called home, worming through locked fences and telling stories about the effects of their mother’s drug addiction on their lives. The brothers talk about the homophobia that almost kept them from pursuing the career that ultimately provided the means to get her sober. Young Rider reveals that his flashy showmanship is a direct result of growing up watching his uncle perform drag. And Blaze voices her frustration when male dancers resent her appearance at shows, or when her mother futilely pressures her to marry a man. The dancers may have a variety of origin stories, but the women who pay to see them only see them as superheroes.
Those patrons are profiled just as lovingly. One of them, Michele, is a white speech pathologist whose father has long since given up on the idea that she’ll bring home a white man to marry. She has a special thing for Mr. Capable, sponsoring an event to raise money for Autism Speaks with him as the main attraction. C-Pudding, youth choir director, shudders and needs a special kind of timeout any time the dancer Satan is mentioned. Poundcake, married to Big Daddy, says she turns gay any time Blaze performs. Big Daddy has no problems with his wife’s favorite pastime. The two joke that it’s why they have so many children.
With all of these characters, we learn the reasons why the escape offered by the booty shaking is so welcome. The women deal with the challenges of homelessness and police brutality, and the men sound off about the challenges of trying to make an honest living after incarceration. But don’t think the documentary is another reason to bemoan the difficulties of black life in America. As soon as you feel the high from watching the entertainers dance and the women react wear off, and the lights begin to come up to reveal more painful realities, Tyga and Raw Dog tell an amusing anecdote about, say, turning themselves into a bowl of fruit.
Because of the film’s budget constraints, there is no easily recognizable music on the soundtrack, so don’t expect to watch another equestrian routine to Ginuwine’s “Pony.” But director Gene Graham pieced in music from various SoundCloud artists and worked tirelessly to sync the dancers’ movements to the songs, and it pays off. Between the entertainers’ mesmerizing moves and women’s arresting storytelling, the need for popular music disappears.
This One’s for the Ladies slips in commentary about black American life as smoothly as a dollar bill slides into a waistband. Watch it to learn more about the lives of exotic dancers, but know that you’ll fall in love with the women supporting them, too. It’s a great film for a girls’ night out, with plenty of fun to make up for any uncomfortable truths and no hangover.