If you were to join Gene Graham’s deeply human documentary “This One’s for the Ladies” as a chatty female character casually prepares heaps of food in her kitchen, you might think she’s gearing up for a family picnic. Well, you wouldn’t be far off — she is indeed cooking for a routine Thursday night assembly in Newark, N.J.; though, it’s not exactly your grandma’s potluck dinner. It is instead where hundreds of mostly black and brown women gather to feast their eyes on a group of black male strippers, who diffuse their entrancing charms through a dance routine, grinding and bending their appealingly toned bodies to indulge the ladies’ sexual fantasies.
The whole affair is vastly entertaining — and far from indecent or intimidating — but there is a reason why Graham earns that NC-17 rating: The members, while mostly covered in fabric casings, are bountifully there. And yet, “This One’s for the Ladies” wears the MPAA grade on its sleeve not as a shameful scarlet letter, but as a badge of honor. That in itself feels like an audacious act, revealing Graham’s near political daring amid all the attractive nudity and lust the film puts on boisterous display. You quickly realize the filmmaker is inviting the audience to appreciate the gentle sexiness of black masculinity (ignored by the first “Magic Mike” movie), free from damaging societal perceptions that falsely insist on its inapproachability. You also take note of the film’s unwavering focus on the ladies teased in the title — their unapologetically alive libidos (generally disregarded in mainstream movies save for joyous examples like “Girls Trip”) are the film’s G-spot, embraced with affection and humor.
Yes, you do grin when overeager women speedily toss dollar bills and loudly blurt out “oohhs” and “aahhs” in a state of erotic trance¬. One particular instance involving a dancer named Satan and a regular churchgoer is particularly blissful in that regard (“I’m going to hell,” she proudly declares). But the magic of Graham’s film lies in its ability to steer the audience’s amusement in an empathetic direction. Your guffaws will never be at the expense of these visibly aroused women, but will accompany their happiness with an insider’s understanding: Yes, those bodies are gorgeous, and we are all human, damn it.
In the end, it all feels like a safe space where almost anything goes. For the dancers and fans alike, the Thursday potlucks seem to offer a break from the daily hardships, systemic racism and unjust power structures that hold back, ignore and sometimes even devastate the lives of their own men and women. While the world in which the strippers (known by their collective name, New Jersey Nasty Boyz) and their loyal fans (mothers, daughters and friends active in their communities in various ways) dwell is tight-knit and specific, Graham doesn’t suggest anything that approaches a sense of exclusivity. On the contrary, he celebrates a familial sense of community, open to anyone who would like to join in the euphoria.
On the dancers’ end, there are figures like the aforementioned Satan, as well as Young Rider, Blaze (a lesbian dancer and the only female performer featured) and twins Tygar and Raw Dawg. The female clientele comes with nicknames too. We meet Poundcake Brown and C-Pudding in no time—a mother of four and a helper of the homeless, respectively—in addition to the fun-loving duo Kay and Ciera, known as Double Trouble. There is also Michele, who pours the support she receives from the exotic dancing clan into a passion project for children with autism.
Clearly mesmerized by their spirited attachment to one another, Graham (also the editor) oftentimes haphazardly toggles through these subjects. One minute, a teen drops in to share his experience of watching his father perform. The next, we meet a new performer. But it’s easy to excuse the filmmaker’s clumsiness; the dots don’t always connect, but every larger-than-life character holds your attention with confidence. You similarly overlook the glaring amateurishness of the cinematography — as unrefined as DP Paul Rowley’s work seems, it strangely enmeshes with the homemade feel of the potluck nights.
In an attempt to build an all-encompassing depiction of this community, Graham frequently opens a window into issues around social injustice, tying it to the events of Ferguson and instances where innocent lives like Eric Garner’s were lost to police brutality. Thanks to this necessary context, he hits a more urgent nerve in the intimate moments that follow Tygar and Raw Dawg. Standing in front of the projects they grew up in, the two brothers generously share their touching story of investing their earnings into the health and well-being of their family. These are the moments that make the pleasures of “This One’s for the Ladies” last, even transform into something quietly radical.