Men At Work
African-American Male Exotic Dancers Protect Their Rights in Don't Hate: Strippers Fight The Government
"I remember the first time I went to watch the male dancers," says Upper Marlboro attorney Jim Bell, talking about the conversation that convinced him watching pumped, oiled, and codpieced male exotic dancers undulating for dollars might not be such a bad idea. The club owner told him he needed to come down, that he was having a special show of about 20 male dancers. Bell, a sturdy, baldheaded 38-year-old with the no-nonsense mien of an amiable Rottweiler, replied that he was a guy--he didn't care if there were 100 dancers. What could this club owner tell him to make him want to watch men dancing?
"And he said, `There's going to be about four to five hundred women [in the audience].' I said, "Uh, what time does it begin?"
Bell's booming laughter fills the booth where he's seated, accompanied by his security detail, Darrell Johnson, inside the Sideline, a swanky sports bar located along the Capital Center retail boulevard in Largo. Despite the lighthearted moment, you get the feeling Bell isn't a man to be trifled with. After all, this is the guy who not only took on the Prince George's County legislature in 2006 and '07 when it tried to outlaw the traditional etiquette for tipping an exotic dancer, but also wrote, directed, and produced the documentary Don't Hate: Strippers Fight the Government, about the crux of his legal argument--with plenty of footage of his ripped and booty-shaking clients included, of course. PG County introduced the new ordinance in 2006, which stipulated that paper money could not be discreetly tucked somewhere on the dancer's person, such as inside the strap of a G-string, eliminating any contact, even as innocuous as a handshake, between the entertainer and the audience.
The documentary, assembled from several months of location shoots and interviews shot by Bell (with assistance from Tina Holmes, a lawyer colleague not involved directly with the case), patiently deconstructs the myth of adult entertainment as the last refuge of the unemployed and anti-social. "People needed to see what really goes on [in the clubs]," Bell says. "Because if you have a misperception of what goes on, your mind can go crazy. You want to see these people not as a caricature but as a human being."
It takes some doing to depict dancers dressed as Indian warlords and S&M cowboys, all with outrageous noms de pole such as Xplicit, King Nubian, and Sexecutioner, as just that. But by interspersing glossy dance footage--of which there is plenty: these dancers display a soft-core, Olympic gymnast floor routine athleticism that's nothing like the cheesy preen-and-strut school of Chippendales male striptease--with sit-down interviews with the dancers outside the club, Bell makes a convincing argument that these men are taxpayers and breadwinners who are entitled to their livelihood. And if tips from spectators are their only pay, to restrict how they're paid goes against life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Don't Hate begins (after a brief overture of the dancers at work) with a full-screen shot of CB-8-2004, the ordinance in question, and a description of its limitations on dancer activity--no tipping during a performance, and dancing while mingling in the crowd with patrons is still considered performance. A patron touching a dancer "while in a state of nudity"--for example, tucking a dollar bill into an article of clothing or pressing paper money to a dancer's skin--is subject to $1,000 in fines or six months in prison for the dancer, the patron, and the manager.
The news that they're hardened criminals deserving six months in jail comes as a surprise to the female patrons Bell queries in stand-up interviews on location at the club. The unscripted refrain from one gratifyingly normal-looking woman after another is the same--this is a harmless way to spend a night out, in the company of their friends and free from harassment they'd encounter at other nightclubs.
"I didn't know that men grab on women when they go to clubs," Bell says, remarking on how eye-opening it was to hear the same comments from many different women. "I didn't know that if a man buys you a drink, he believes he can follow you around the parking lot. And some women actually go to [strip clubs] because they don't want to deal with that. They're partying and having a good time."
In the documentary, one entertainer's fiancée eloquently sums up the situation: "As long as the women are happy, it's good for everybody, meaning [they're] buying drinks, buying food, taking pictures. People have jobs that rely on these women coming to that club for those things."
Bell became the go-to guy for adult entertainment venues after representing Washington's now-defunct Nexus Gold Club in a 2002 financial dispute. ("Once you represent the biggest gentleman's club on the East Coast everybody's going to come to you," he says.) And he knew this new ordinance was bad legislation as soon as he started doing the research.
"When you try to attack someone's livelihood--I mean, to get these clubs, if that's what you want to do, you need some empirical data," he says. "And they have no empirical data whatsoever. The legislators are the one who enacted the ordinance, and they admitted during the court proceedings that they never went to the club when it was open. You can't make a rational, intelligent decision about something that you've never seen."
Inside the sports bar, as Bell explains his story, the pedestrian traffic outside on the shopping boulevard is just like any outdoor mall in White Marsh or Hunt Valley--gaggles of teens discussing sneaker brands, professionals in office attire making plans for happy hour, moms and grandmoms taking the baby for a stroll. The only difference is that here, in the most prosperous majority African-American county in America, every well-heeled shopper is black--a detail that, even in this day and age, still unfortunately contains the slightest hint of the Twilight Zone. In Bell's opinion, it's this entry of African-American money into the pool of upper-class prosperity that's crucial to understanding what's going on behind the ordinance directed at venues such as Classics, the Camp Springs nightclub serving as home base to most of his dancer clients.
"Does race play a factor? Yes. Here's the reality: The people who drafted the law"--he stumbles for a moment, choosing his words carefully for this white reporter--"were not African-American. You have to realize those [dancers] are stereotypical of big black bucks with large genitalia. There are men in America who have problems with that. Now you deal with the fact that women in Prince George's County have achieved enough financially to exercise their economic power and tip these men. There's a lot of people who don't like that. It's easy to scapegoat people during an election year with adult entertainment, especially when you don't show people what it really is. Because if you see it, it's nothing."
(For the record, Thomas Hendershot, the former Prince George's County Council member who spearheaded the ordinance, denied in a phone interview that racism was a factor. "The legislation was adopted unanimously, and six members of [the] county council that voted for it were in fact African-Americans," Hendershot says. "The communities from whom I heard complaints about clubs in my district are predominantly African-American communities. . . . Whatever he's saying about that is nonsense." Hendershot also notes that, due to term limits, he was unable to seek re-election in 2006, the year the ordinance was introduced.)
And then Bell's cell phone rings. It's one of the dancers, looking for last-minute directions to the interview. A few minutes later, Ed Cloyd greets Bell warmly and slides into the booth. At the club he goes by the name "Total Package," and between his well-groomed hair, designer shirt, and faint nimbus of cologne it's easy to see why. As seen in the movie, Cloyd is a Dionysian marvel onstage, but in person he's stoic and reserved, the kind of guy you'd never believe could get up and sing karaoke at an office party, let alone exert himself seven nights a week for the delight of hollering, horny women.
"People look at us different once they hear `dancer,'" Cloyd says. "They think stripper. The definition of a stripper to an ordinary person is like, they're nothing. People don't know [the other] side until they meet us, and they get a whole different perception on everything."
Cloyd, who earned a bachelor's degree in computer science before deciding his career lay in adult entertainment, rejects the idea that he could just get a job somewhere else rather than fight the ordinance. "I like to do what I'm good at," he says. "And evidently, wherever [people] work, that's what they're good at. It's not like I couldn't do anything else. It's just what I choose to do."
The most humanizing scene in Don't Hate features Cloyd playing with his young son outside their suburban home, cavorting on a playground, watching his son ride a bike, the boy's mother making sure her child is wearing his safety equipment. Cloyd's son is absolutely the apple of his father's eye, and anyone unconvinced that male exotic dance can be a wholesome entry into middle-class opportunity and contentment will be after seeing father and son together. "That's how my son goes to private school," Cloyd says of his profession. "I didn't get a chance to go to private school."
Cloyd takes out his key chain to share a picture of his little boy, unalloyed pride washing across his face. "I don't think I've ever seen a television program where you show a black mother putting safety equipment [on their child] before riding a bike," Bell says. "I don't think I've ever seen that. It's almost like black people are still portrayed as less human, less intelligent, less caring of their children. And this film shows a whole different aspect."
It's an aspect an entire slew of film festival juries are happy to see on screen, from the Harlem International Film Festival to the Hollywood Black Film Festival to the Black International Cinema Film/Video Festival in Berlin, to name a few that have invited Don't Hate to screen. Meanwhile, between the festival circuit and negotiating DVD and cable rights for Don't Hate, Bell is tying up the last of the loose ends around the PG County ordinance case. He's already successfully argued for a preliminary injunction and plans to move for a permanent injunction May 30. "We're going to beat them," he assures.
Bell is also planning his next video project: The Show, a documentary following the dancers of the Classics on tour in Europe with Texas-based (and majority white) male exotic dance troupe International Men of Steel. "Don't Hate has some political aspects, some social value if you will, as it relates to showing people the little guy can stand up against the government and win," Bell says. "This new movie is a straight chick flick. It's something that you and your girlfriends will want to sit around, eat some popcorn, drink some wine, and rewind over and over again."
At the end of the day, what pleases Bell most isn't winning his case, but providing an alternative vision of African-American power--that guns or drugs don't equal might when compared to a sharp suit, honest money in the bank, and the counsel of a good lawyer. "I think a lot of myths were destroyed when you watch [Don't Hate]," Bell says. "These people are young people in their 20s and early 30s. They're articulate. They're intelligent. They have a plan of action. You don't see that a lot in the media as they portray African-Americans."
If Bell has any regrets, it's that he didn't get to shoot footage in the courtroom--not because he's proud of his performance in court, but mostly for the sight of the "25 to 30 black male dancers in court. They all came to court, every day. And they weren't defendants. They were plaintiffs. Even the judge commented on that. We packed the courtroom."
Did he get to show the movie in court? "No, but the judge got a copy of it," Bell says with a twinkle in his eye. "He liked it."
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