Hustlers is a hell of a good time. If you’re down with watching a bunch of badass women doing it for themselves onscreen and dominating the conversation, if you want to support diversity in film, then put your money where your mouth is and your butt on the cinema seat. But don’t go in with expectations of a life changing feminist dialogue, rather it’s some necessary commentary on the power of bodily autonomy offered by sex work, and the beauty of sisterhood and sex worker kinship. Hustlers is worth it just for the small doses of Cardi B’s woman first sexual power, and Lizzo’s portrayal of ownership and celebration of self. It’s a fun frolic worthy of your money at the box office. After all, if we don’t support women in film and the ticket sales aren’t there, we don’t get more woman first content. But with a $33 million opening weekend, it’s proof there’s demand out there.
Based on a 2015 article about real life hustler Roselyn Keo, Hustlers follows the story of a group of strippers at fictional New York strip club Moves during the heady days of Wall Street then the subsequent crash. Lead Destiny (Catherine Wu) is based on Keo, and Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona on Samantha Barbash. Notably, Keo and Barbash both served five years’ probation for the crimes outlined in the film.
Baby stripper Destiny is the new girl at Moves, struggling to find her stilettoed feet, until she is literally invited into Ramona’s furs for protection and assistance, to work her way up from lap dancing to getting her hustle on making big money. That is, until the Wall Street crash and the girls of Moves are suddenly left with no clientele, and forced to seek out alternative employment, which doesn’t pay the bills for single mothers anywhere. The women resort to hustling in nefarious ways, gradually progressing to some serious larceny at the expense of their previous clientele, who aren’t painted in a very good light.
Written and directed by a woman, based on real women’s stories and featuring all women in lead roles, it’s a feminist’s wet dream. Passing the ultimate reverse Bechdel test, men have virtually no contribution to dialogue or narrative, and the parts they do play are ultimately unflattering. There is no provision for pity on the men as the gang’s victims, the only time they are really discussed. The focus is firmly placed upon the women’s story, but unfortunately, the story is where the script falls down somewhat.
We aren’t allowed in to see the history of these women, beyond some minor insights into Destiny’s family life and the fact that Ramona is a single mum. Therefore they only exist onscreen as sex workers and not as rounded women with lives beyond their careers. It is, however, a relief to see sex workers not painted as victims of their circumstances and lives, but working women with agency who have made the active choice to get that money in a way that suits them. And this is what sex work is all about. It’s about the autonomy to choose, and yes, even enjoy their jobs. Certainly, there are dangers, as portrayed in the film, but it is not up to anyone but the worker how they choose to make a living. More importantly, those dangers would lessen if men would stop trying to hurt women, not if women stopped having bodily autonomy and financial freedom.
Filmed in a real New York strip club with employees acting as extras in the film, director LoreneScafaria did her due diligence with Hustlers. She conducted research for writing and directing the film by interviewing real life strippers. Two of the cast members (Cardi B and Trace Lysette) self identify as sex workers. Trace Lysette (Tracey) didn’t so much break ground but smash through it by setting a record as the first trans person to appear on television as a cis person with a speaking role. Instagram darling Jacq the Stripper acted as a consultant. And the majority of leads are women of colour. Talk about checking all the diversity boxes without even trying. See how easy that was, Hollywood?
Sadly, there’s not enough of cultural phenomenons Cardi B or Lizzo, but their moments onscreen are electrifying and leave the audience wanting more. Lizzo’s first foray into film proves her to be the star we already know she is. The DNA tests are in and not only is she 100% that bitch, she’s also a triple threat with acting chops, moves and an attitude that are deadly as heck onscreen.
Hustlers is a really fun way to spend a couple of hours and is without a doubt Jennifer Lopez’s comeback role, with so much sass it’s deliciously enjoyable to watch. Think stripper Thelma and Louise meet Goodfellas and kick their asses wearing stripper heels. With more swagger. And you’re halfway there.