(Image description: Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers (2019))
Article by Amal
In 2015, an article titled “The Hustlers at Scores” stormed the internet. Published by New York Magazine the investigative piece detailed the criminal operations of a crew of strippers in New York. The almost mythic tale was quickly adapted to the big screen to become Hustlers (2019). The film, like the article tells the story of a group of exotic dancers who steal money by drugging wealthy men.
Set in 2007, Dorothy (Constance Wu) also known by her stage name Destiny, struggles to support her grandmother as she starts a job at a new club. She quickly forms a friendship with Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) who guides her through the rough nights. The dancers stick close together and with the comedic presence of cast members like Cardi B and Lizzo (who plays the flute in a scene), everything seems great. But things turn south after the 2008 financial crash forcing the women to find money elsewhere.
Directed by Lorene Scafaria, Hustlers explores the power dynamics between the female dancers and the men who pay them. With a woman behind the camera, Hustlers destroys the idea of the male gaze. In her opening scene, Ramona, a veteran stripper, performs a lengthy dance to Fiona Apple’s song ‘Criminal’. Scafaria highlights her expertise and athleticism while the male audience members howl at her like unhinged beasts.
The male gaze, a term coined by film critic Laura Mulvey describes the act of depicting women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer. In film, as men are so often behind the camera, the male gaze has become the natural in the language of cinema. But Hustlers rejects this. It guides the audience through beautifully shot montages set to early 2010s radio hits. It goes beyond the tropes of female empowerment films and explores the complicated tension between power and financial control.
Hustlers does not shy away from showing the degradation of the job. The dancers face nightly abuse from demanding customers and are financially exploited by sleazy managers who expect a cut of their hard work. It is upfront about the patriarchal and predatory world these women live in. After the 2008 financial crash, they are once again left at the mercy of rich men; the ultimate villains. As much as the chase money, Hustlers has an anti-capitalist message.
It would have been so easy for Hustlers to be a film all about strippers who revenge, but it manages to be so much more. The women feature are three-dimensional characters with complicated backstories. They work together to raise their children, support one another when they are outcast from their families or dealing with abusive boyfriends. Both the original article and the film features the line “hurt people hurt people” as a possible explanation for the hustler’s actions. Hustlers never makes any moral judgements. It highlights the countless obstacles facing its characters and how the system works against them in every. It tells us the game is rigged from the beginning, and if you’ve been cheated that many times, sometimes you end up breaking the rules.