This One's for the Ladies

NC-17 movies are a rarity these days, and NC-17 documentaries are even more rare. That alone makes This One's for the Ladies noteworthy. This is probably the nicest NC-17 film you'll ever see. It's full of people who seem genuinely, well, nice. So what causes it to earn the MPAA's most restrictive rating? Just some graphic sexual content, that's all.

Director Gene Graham takes us inside a weekly potluck celebration in New Jersey where the state's hottest African-American male dancers entertain an enthusiastic group of women. Over the course of 83 minutes, we get to know the parties involved. On the dancer side, there's Raw Dawg and Tygar, twin brothers who overcame a difficult childhood in the projects; Young Rider, who saw dancing as a way out of a life on the streets; and Satan, an especially boundary-pushing performer who inspires his devotees to scream that they want to go to hell.

We also meet the women who frequent these shows. C-Pudding is a church-going single mother of two; Poundcake is a married mother of four whose husband is totally chill with her regular attendance; and Michele is an autism advocate. They're normal people enjoying a prurient pastime.

The most captivating quality about This One's for the Ladies is the way it demystifies the entire scene. Yes, there are plenty of sexually-charged gyrations, as well as moments in which the dancers do things like lick chocolate sauce off the spread legs of their fans. But these are not, as stereotypes suggest, sleazy individuals. Some of the guys have significant others and children. For them, this is merely a way of putting food on the table. C-Pudding and Poundcake have big hearts, a fact they demonstrate when making meals for the homeless. Fever, a particularly popular dancer, is proud to be the first in his family to graduate high school. He strives to show his younger siblings that they don't need to fall into a life of drugs and crime.

The peek inside the world of these shows isn't as titillating as you might expect, which is a good thing. Because we can see that everyone is on the same “let's have a little mature fun” page, the strip shows feel like a catharsis. The dancers enjoy the adulation of their fans and the pay from an honest night's work. The women enjoy an opportunity to blow off some steam. One interview subject says husbands shouldn't be jealous because coming to the shows gets the women horny “and you get the benefit.” Hard to argue with that logic.

The last twenty or so minutes of the documentary veer into social commentary, as the various participants discuss some of the issues that face the African-American community. Police brutality, drugs, and economic disparity all come into play. This helps get the point across that these folks are civically conscious, despite participation in something some would label “lascivious.”

Where This One's for the Ladies falls short is in the depth department. The people we meet are interesting, and they frequently reveal fascinating things that the movie frustratingly doesn't follow up on. Michele tells us that her father struggles with her attraction to black men. She mentions it, and then it's dropped, without exploration of her feelings. Young Rider says that the inspiration for his flamboyant costumes comes from a transgender uncle who organized drag shows. Why, specifically, did this inspire him? Hearing more about these and other issues would go a long way toward giving the documentary added substance. Graham might have been wise to pare it down to just three or four subjects we could know intimately, rather than having a dozen or so dilute the impact.

This One's for the Ladies is a little bit of an “on the fence” movie for me. There's a good amount of intriguing material here. I just wish there was more of it. Although perfectly entertaining on a surface level, the film had the potential to go deeper – to show us how the performers' onstage life contrasts with life offstage, to reveal what makes the ladies so invested in attending these events, to dig into whether anyone has faced serious disapproval from family/friends/colleagues, and so on.

This could have been a great doc; instead, it's amusing but thin.

out of four

This One's for the Ladies is rated NC-17 for some explicit sexual images. The running time is 1 hour and 22 minutes.