The Movie Hustlers is unlike any other I’ve seen: the main characters are strippers, but they aren’t objectified, and the film does not ask me to care about any men. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) sets the tone instantly, opening with a Janet Jackson voiceover informing the audience “this is a story about control,” a clip from her 1986 hit song, “Control.” This statement establishes that Hustlers is a movie about bold women, and especially about bold women of color. The crime comedy-drama is in many ways a departure for Scafaria. Hustlers is bounds away from a romantic comedy — the film is based on real events, as reported in a 2016 New York magazine story; clichés are few and far between; and amidst the takedowns of corrupt businessmen, platonic and familial love take center stage.
Hustlers depicts how a group of women went from dancers at a strip club to criminal masterminds. Starring Jennifer Lopez (What To Expect When You’re Expecting) as ringleader Ramona alongside Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians) as Dorothy, or as she’s known throughout the film, Destiny, Hustlers is a departure for much of the cast as well. Scafaria’s film frames the story of their ascension to dangerous, euphoric extremes through Destiny’s interview with stoic journalist Elizabeth, played by Julia Stiles (Silver Linings Playbook). Like any good storyteller, Scafaria starts her story at the beginning: Destiny is a new dancer at Moves in New York City, and after watching Ramona’s stunningly graceful, impressively lucrative solo performance and sharing a cigarette with her on the roof, Destiny asks the older woman to take her under her wing.
Time blurs as shots of rhinestones illuminated by colorful club lights are interspersed with clips of men on endless phone calls in drab finance offices. Scafaria highlights the corrupt source of the strip club’s cash flow but stays focused on the women and their agency. Strippers aren’t usually understood to be in control. Their occupation involves putting their bodies on display, and they’re often viewed in a sexist, misogynist, objectifying light. In Hustlers, a female filmmaker portrays women as very much in control of their bodies and their choices. Scafaria positions her characters not as objects and not even strictly as subjects, but as agents over themselves, and even over the men who fawn over them.
At Moves, Destiny is part of something bright and beautiful. The women there have each other’s backs. Keke Palmer (Scream Queens) is Mercedes, who looks to the other women as she supports her incarcerated boyfriend. Ramona and Diamond (Cardi B) teach Destiny how to do a proper lap dance. One night, Liz (Lizzo) runs in shouting that Usher himself has walked into Moves. Then comes the 2008 financial crisis. Wall Street men can’t spend money like they used to, and the strip club industry changes.
Next to the cast’s performances and the soundtrack that anchors her work in its 2000s timeline, Scafaria’s pacing is part of what makes Hustlers successful. The audience is never bored, and just when you’ve settled into a new normal, something shifts. Post 2008-crash, Dorothy leaves the club to raise her child and returns in 2011 to find a new norm of customers expecting sex. Ramona has created a way to not just stay afloat but make even more money. Find a rich man at a nice bar, drug him, and bring him to Moves to charge thousands on his card. This is a story about control and power and money. Who has it, who doesn’t, and how to take it back after it’s been ripped away from you.
Jennifer Lopez plays Ramona as strong and determined, but also as loving. Ramona dances so her daughter can do anything she wants to, not unlike Destiny dancing to pay off her grandmother’s house or Mercedes dancing to afford a decent lawyer for her boyfriend. Ramona includes her two longtime friends in the scheme, along with Lili Reinhart’s (Riverdale) anxious young Annabelle, whose confidence grows under Ramona’s tutelage. The effects of 2008 are felt not only in the extremes the women have turned to, but also in the absence of Liz and Diamond. They are nowhere to be seen from Destiny’s 2011 return to the club onward. But maybe that’s the point — when the club became a more ruthless place, only the size zero white girls could make good money. A plus-size black woman and a Caribbean woman with an attitude from the Bronx didn’t stand a chance.
Hustlers is about women who know how to take care of themselves. Throughout the film, Destiny repeats that she doesn’t want to depend on anybody. She dances for financial independence. This is where control comes into play. The irony of it all is that Destiny and Ramona quickly depend on each other. They hold each other close and make a promise — it’s me and you. Toward the film’s conclusion, Constance Wu’s careful voiceover explains their operation’s downfall to Elizabeth. The moment the cops came and they were no longer untouchable. She’s hesitant to continue. Even in 2014, a year after the group fell apart, Destiny sits in a nice house wearing an immaculate white pantsuit and thinks of Ramona with affection. I doubt that a male screenwriter could capture the nuances in their relationship as Scafaria does.
Though far from a romantic comedy, Hustlers comes across as intended for a similar audience, albeit with a more socially conscious intention than a mid-2000s rom-com. The cast is made up of diverse women, the jokes aren’t made at their expense, and they’re empowered with a degree of agency that’s unprecedented, even if it can’t last forever. The enemy in Hustlers is the ruling class, which is to say the patriarchy. It’s not the feel-good movie a woman puts on for a cozy night in with her boyfriend, but it is a feel-good movie. It’s a feel-good, watch-with-your-best-friends, no-male-gaze-here movie. Scafaria breaks the mold of the heist drama to deliver a film that respects everything women are capable of.