It takes approximately thirty minutes for a giant erect penis to make an appearance in This One’s for the Ladies, which is somewhat stunning given that Gene Graham’s documentary is an NC-17 look at African-American male strippers—specifically, members of Newark, New Jersey’s Nasty Boyz troupe. Not that there isn’t plenty of skin (and sheathed, bouncing phalluses) to otherwise gawk at in this raunchy, ribald non-fiction release. Magic Mike’s stripteases are downright chaste when compared to the wild action on display throughout this portrait of uninhibited men who undress for money, and the enthusiastic women who adore them.
Those looking for a profound investigation of this adult-oriented milieu will have to search elsewhere. Still, Graham’s documentary (in theaters Friday, February 1) is eye-opening in a variety of intriguing ways. With its focus skewed toward the clientele rather than the performers, the film is a rowdy snapshot of this underground scene, where muscular, tattooed, and (yes) rock-hard guys bump, grind, gyrate and do far, far nastier things to eager ladies who demand an interactive good time when they head out to a show with their friends. From what’s on display in this 83-minute affair, if a woman isn’t having a hunky stud eat cake off her unclothed rear end, or lick chocolate sauce off her inner thigh, the night is a veritable bust.
Graham delivers copious footage of such madness, with dancers (named things like Blaq Magic and X-Rated) flipping, sliding, crawling, spinning and writhing around the floor while surrounded by women sitting on folding chairs and at tables; the venues for these spectacles, it turns out, are often not actual strip clubs but large empty mess halls fit for expansive parties. Many women attend these shindigs on a recurring basis, and commonly boast nicknames of their own, like BFFs Poundcake and C-Pudding, the former a married woman whose spouse Big Daddy has no issue with his wife frequenting the shows, and the latter a single regular who has to fan herself to keep from fainting whenever she discusses an eloquent hunk named Satan, who turns out to be the man willing to flash his aforementioned member for the camera.
Poundcake and C-Pudding’s fondness for male strippers is shared by Michele, a Caucasian Newark resident who views performances as a means of blowing off steam and hanging out with acquaintances as much as a chance to get her proverbial rocks off. At one point during the film, she hosts an autism fundraiser event with her own favorite dancer, a sociable behemoth named Mr. Capable who’s eager to support the cause, and in fact refers to Michele as “family”—a comment that, when revisited in a subsequent interview, brings Michele to tears. In that segment, This One’s for the Ladies illustrates the surprisingly close relationship shared by entertainers and patrons in this subculture, where the boundary between those on and off stage is hopelessly blurred. Which, of course, is clear from the performances themselves, when physical contact is not only constant, but downright mandatory, which Michele informs us is what sets African-American revues apart from their white counterparts.
Such explicit interaction naturally raises the question of what types of sexual exchanges might be taking place, and as two young patrons known as “Double Trouble” admit, certain women do seek out flings with dancers, whom they claim are too unfaithful to be trusted as boyfriends. Even Pretty Hair, the long-time partner of Raw Dawg (one half of the brotherly duo Raw Dawg & Tyga, who founded the New Jersey Nasty Boyz), confesses that she had to put up with his womanizing—and eventually get rid of his other girlfriends—in order to solidify their relationship. However, as demonstrated by Poundcake, at least some attendees are happily married, and interested only in getting a vicarious thrill before returning home, horny, for their husbands.
In passages about Blaze, a lesbian dancer who earns most of her money from male-audience shows but nevertheless tours, with difficulty, on the male-dancer circuit, This One’s for the Ladies hints at the fascinating hetero-homosexual dynamics at play in this environment, where even Poundcake admits she can feel a bit gay when witnessing a talented woman do her thing. Graham, though, never gets below the surface in that regard. Moreover, his periodic detours into larger concerns—for example, following C-Pudding to Washington to participate in an anti-police violence march, or listening to Pretty Hair talk about income inequality and neglected public schools—are underdeveloped. While those issues are pressing facets of African-Americans’ day-to-day reality, the film—with the exception of Raw Dawg and Tyga stating that they escaped poverty and crime through their careers, and award-winning showman Fever claiming he steered his younger siblings away from drugs and car thievery—insufficiently links these asides to the male stripping business that is its primary subject.
This One’s for the Ladies needs more connective tissue between its revelry sequences and its sociological glimpses of 21st century inner-city life. Nonetheless, the director captures the larger sense of community that exotic-dancing shows provide women in places like Newark. There’s no judgment, shame or qualms about morality here—as C-Pudding illustrates through her work with a church choir and a community outreach program that feeds the homeless, being a devotee of male strippers is wholly compatible with also being a pious person dedicated to giving back to those in need and to the younger generations she aims to inspire. For C-Pudding and other fervent customers, watching incredibly buff men smack women in the face with their enormous equipment is just another Friday night, to be casually enjoyed after a long week of routine drudgery.
“When I’m doing this, it’s no wrong,” says popular dancer Young Rider, and This One’s for the Ladies certainly makes the case that taking in a performance by the New Jersey Nasty Boyz (or a similar outfit) serves as a carefree stress-release valve for these women. Not to mention that, as they all agree, it’s entertainingly titillating. As Poundcake puts it, “It’s an experience you’ll never forget.”