Magic Mike was about making you like Channing Tatum’s Mike.
Magic Mike XXL is a history lesson in why you liked Channing Tatum’s Mike. Along the way, the film exposes a mainstream audience to Southern subcultures where Magic Mikes are made.
THERE ARE SO MANY SPOILERS AHEAD
In the first movie, Mike’s “Pony” routine took a 1990s R&B jam and gave it new life. All that grinding could be creepy, with the oil and dry humping and what not, if not for Mike being in on the joke. The whole movie works because Mike knows his job is ridiculous. But “Pony” worked as a singular cultural moment because Tatum can dance. I don’t mean Tatum can keep the beat. Tatum’s Mike is magic because it is a white guy dancing like a black guy.
Ginuwine originally performed “Pony”. He was also known for his stripper-like choreography. Look at Ginuwine’s performance:
That was hip-hop smoothed out on an R&B tip at its finest.
Tatum’s Mike executes a dead ringer of a performance that would be right at home in a mashup of great 90s R&B performances.
I am fairly certain the black audience got that the first go-round. I do not know if other audiences did. But, Magic Mike XXL did not want to leave it to chance.
In part deux, Mike and the gang are back. They’re three years older. They’re still friends. Their knees aren’t what they used to be and more than a few of them are craving hearth and home. They decide to hit the stage just one last time before moving on to chase some of the most clearly working class aspirations I’ve seen in mainstream film in awhile: a food truck, a furniture store, and misguided vending machine invention.
Along the way they trace the origins of the moves that resonated with millions of people in the first film. First, they strut their stuff at a drag show. They play it straight. There are no “no homo” jokes. No one looks twice when the guys do their best vogue, itself an homage to black queer ballroom culture. Later, they hang out with the emcee, a large Hispanic drag queen. He’s a homie who just happens to be in fishnets with a beat face.
From southern drag queen shows, the crew eventually finds their way to a black strip club. The club is upscale. They want to make this point so much that they make it members-only and stage it in a mansion. It is a little ridiculous and I feel like it was written to satisfy the actress playing the owner: Jada Pinkett Smith.
The mansion is heavy-handed. But the setting inside the mansion is classic women’s-only strip club of the black southern variety: black male entertainers, a bevy of mostly black women, and rhythmic hip-hop/R&B soundtrack.
It’s a ladies lock-up.
Where I am from (also the South), there isn’t a big enough audience to maintain a regular strip club that caters to heterosexual black women. Instead, innovative promoters ship in black male exotic dancers for one-night-only events at area nightclubs. These so-called ladies lock-ups are the antithesis of Chippendales & Co. Those mainly white male strip shows have more in common with broadway revues — slick production and sad sack dance numbers — than they do interactive ladies locks ups.
Look at the Chippendales:
And, now look at BWT Entertainment ladies lock up compilation:
The routines are amazing for their sheer physicality. The entertainers at ladies lock ups are gymnasts, acrobats and performers. The Chippendale crew barely keeps up in performance, much less athleticism. The entertainers at ladies lock ups interact with the female crowd directly, using a bare minimum of props and production. The Chippendales are mostly lights and line-dancing. Magic Mike is a ladies lock up kind of man.
Mike trained with the best, and Tatum leaves no doubt about who the best are. We learn Magic Mike was once White Chocolate. The white guy in a black ladies lock up stripper crew, White Chocolate learned a brand of entertainment that is distinctly black and southern. He earns his Magic by keeping up with the black male dancers (who prefer “stripper” to Mike’s crew’s preference for “male entertainer”).
Mike seems to have picked up something else in that ballroom and ladies lock up culture: not once in this film do the male entertainers play the women for jokes. Not fat women. Not black women. Not older women. Not once. When the first anti-Barbie appeared on screen I realized I was braced for the jokes. They never came. Like men at the ladies lock up, Mike and his crew are there for all the women. You are as likely to see a large women at a lock-up flipped over a chair as you are a petite one.
I was told that Mad Max was this season’s feminist movie. At the start of that movie a white dude controls all the water. In the middle a pale, thin, pregnant white woman manages to be backlit in a post-apocalyptic desert. At the end of the film a bald white woman ascends to the heavens, new master of the people. I thought that was some strange feminism. Trading a white woman for a white dude is a kind of thing, I guess.
I left Magic Mike XXL thinking it was a different kind of feminist movie. It isn’t a great movie but even the reasons it isn’t great are pretty cool. The film is slow because the men have these internal lives that do not revolve around sex or women. When a group of middle-aged southern belles interacts with the fellas, there’s the usual song-and-dance about older women’s unsatisfying sex lives. But you get the unexpected revelation that one of the older dancers feels like he missed his time to have a family and a relationship. A man is worried about his biological clock rather than whipping it out to inject the old broad with new life. That’s got to be worth something. The dancing isn’t great. None of these guys could make a living at this in real life, except for Mike. They’re pretty horrible but they seem to know it.
Save a few hiccups (Mike’s new love interest could have been played by a gingerbread man and been more memorable than the woman in the role), the movie is simple, honest, and fun. It’s even funnier if you get the “I’m a cookie man” joke. If you’ve ever been to a ladies lock up (or pay attention to Nicki Minaj) you will.