Hustlers (2019)

One of the most hyped films of the year comes in the form of Lorene Scafaria’s crime drama, Hustlers. Based on the New York Magazine article that follows a group of strippers who drug and con Wall Street men off their money during the 2008 recession. The film stars Constance Wu as Destiny, a former stripper who is interviewed by Elizabeth (Julia Stiles) who is conducting research for her article. Destiny reflects on her rise to the top with the help of veteran stripper, Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) and together they concoct a plan that sees them milking the Wall Street types for all they’re worth. This film could have easily slipped into a male gaze fantasy that sexualises the women and focuses on their bodies rather than their minds and motivations but luckily, with a female director and female majority clue, this film becomes a poignant reflection on the treatment of women and the recklessness of the rich who exploit the poor.

Lorene Scafaria’s direction and script is brilliant with multiple characters receiving plenty of depth and screen time all while keeping it boxed in within the interview narrative. It’s a simple technique to use to detach the audience from the dramatic events in the film. Aside from these glimpses into the future interview, the flashback follows a linear structure and shows the budding relationship between Destiny and Ramona as well as their falling out. The genius of Scafaria’s direction comes in focusing on the faces of the characters rather than their bodies. As Ramona does her opening dance, the screen flits to Destiny who looks on in awe as well as Ramona herself who clearly knows exactly what she’s doing as she writhes in a pile of money. Another brilliant scene is when Destiny grows tired of being interviewed by Elizabeth and switches off her recorder. What follows is a scene of silence to reflect that Destiny is now protected from this woman who has lived such a different life from her. Constance Wu was the perfect choice for Destiny. The difference between her as an aspiring stripper and the uncomfortable woman who has lived through the experiences at the interview is like viewing two different people. Wu doesn’t hold back in her vulnerability. Destiny is clearly a rookie at her job and to see Ramona take her under her wing rather than set her up for failure is something that a film created for the male gaze would not do. This is an authentic view of womanhood and it’s made all the more empowering knowing that it was made by a woman and features a collection of strong female characters.

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I think it’s only right to give Jennifer Lopez her own section. The triple threat truly comes into her own as Destiny’s mentor, Ramona and has subsequently earned multiple major award nominations so far including Golden Globe and SAG nominations for Best Supporting Actress. It’s pretty inevitable that she will receive an Academy Award nomination at this point also and deservedly so. Ramona is presented as ruthless but caring, mentor and mother. She sees herself in Destiny and only wants to give her the best life that she never had. Despite her many flaws, we are drawn to Ramona and we understand why she thinks the way she does despite the danger in her plans. Her experience as a woman of colour who’s livelihood is dependant on the rich white men of Wall Street is shattered as she decides to take these matters into her own hands. Ramona understands that the only way to achieve the American Dream is to rely on oneself rather than lean on an unreliable patriarchy that is all to happy to kick those less fortunate to the curb. The audience doesn’t see Jennifer Lopez. From the first moment she appears on the screen, she is Ramona.

In terms of the supporting cast, we see Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Cardi B and Lizzo popping up on the screen as fellow strippers. It’s great to see a majority collection of strong women of colour in a film that builds them up rather than knocking them down. Their lifestyle isn’t glorified but it isn’t judged either. It simply is. Cardi B was cast due to her past experience as a stripper before hitting the bigtime and Lizzo is cast due to her positive body message that she likes to convey in her music. This proves how important it was to Scafaria that the female cast have confidence and aren’t ashamed of their characters. Hustlers is a brilliant example of a film by women for women. I look forward to seeing what else Scafaria has up her sleeve as well as Lopez’s next acting ventures. It’s a film that brings a spectrum of emotions while remaining true to its message and true to the characters. Hustlers presents us with the argument that not everything is black and white and although openly flawed, the motivations are not to be glorified or judged. These are events that simply happened as a consequence of context.

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The soundtrack is packed with nostalgia as we are truly thrown back to old school hits that range from Janet Jackson to Britney Spears. There’s even a cameo from Usher as the singer was reported to have visited the club. The film becomes elevated by its music. After all, it provides the literal backtrack to the women’s dance so picking the right songs is key. It is cleverly mixed with classical pieces that help to detach those scenes of adrenaline with the more hard-hitting drama. One aspect of the soundtrack that I thought was genius was not including songs by Jennifer Lopez, Cardi B or Lizzo. Despite the idea of an original collab being incredible and Oscar fodder that everyone would eat up, omitting their musical achievements outside of the film allows them to embrace the characters they are and brings the audience to a higher level of relatability and believability.

In a year that has seen many brilliant films written and directed by women, Hustlers is a great insight into the future of female cinema. If you haven’t seen this yet, I highly recommend that you do. As always, let me know what you think of Hustlers in the comments below!

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