What is a “hustler”? Raising kids and working? Being a single mom? Taking care of your grandparent, daughter and working without a partner? Seems admirable in all cases. The women of Hustlers work hard — physically, emotionally, intellectually. They are constantly getting taken advantage of and keep hustling to take care of themselves and their families. But this film is not about sex workers rising above the industry. This film is about unapologetic women who are very close to white-collar criminals and decide there is no reason not to squeeze these Wall Street men dry. It is magically performed by a large cast of women, led by Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu. Fingers crossed that they are recognized for the performances during awards season.
Women are powerful and shrewd throughout Hustlers. The audience is always rooting for them and always on their side, despite the criminal behavior.
“Having all women on the set — in front of the camera, behind the camera, behind the scenes with producers — it’s definitely a different experience. It’s not something that happens every day in Hollywood,” Lopez told The Hollywood Reporter. “I’ve done, I don’t know, 40 movies or something like that. It’s never happened. I don’t think it’s ever happened.”
It’s a different experience for the audience, too. With a female-led cast, a female director, and female writers, we are introduced to several well-developed female characters. They are well aware of the universal oppression of the Wall Street-ers who patronize their club, even before the crash of 2008. These men are just idiots who spend their money on a fantasy provided by the women. But the women in the film are in on it — they are in control. Sexy and driven, smart and clever. Also, don’t forget that Jennifer Lopez is 50 years old! Her character, Ramona, is the leader of this group of sex workers, but there is no shock or shame based on her age. Life does not end for middle-aged women, despite Hollywood’s typical perspective on them.
Many reviews and interviews agree that Hustlers is a love story. It is the story of found family — friendships among women who are looking after one another when no one else is on their side. They are never at odds with each other. Even during the few disagreements, they are compassionate and empathetic to one another, with genuine love and care. And no catfights! What a concept!
Destiny, played by Constance Wu, is immediately in awe of Ramona. She isn’t competitive or jealous of her, instead feeling respect and admiration. When Destiny reaches out for some pointers from Ramona, Ramona literally embraces her with open arms. This is a much more accurate portrayal of most female friendships than movies tend to lean on. Typically in film, if women are not just the partner of the main character, they are fighting each other (usually over a man). Hustlers is comedic in the most charming ways, and never at the expense of anyone but the men.
The first fist-pumping moment is in the casting of Tracy, played by Trace Lysette. The victory is seeing a transgender woman playing a character not written to be trans. Women can do it all!
The next refreshing component comes when we realize that the audience is never on the side of the men. They aren’t the villains, necessarily, but they aren’t the brightest bulbs. The men definitely don’t even feel like victims, even if they technically are. My favorite aspect is that almost all the “scammed” men are white, and almost all of the strippers are women of color. The men think they are the smartest and most powerful in the country because of their wealth, but they are outsmarted by women of color in a culturally vilified profession. I cannot stress the importance of this enough.
After the Wall Street crash, the viewers see the women try to go “straight.” In one scene, Destiny interviews for a department store retail position. The interviewer judges her, just like all of society judges women in her profession. The viewers will hopefully realize the compassion they feel for these women should be given to all sex workers. Ramona says, “When I was a kid, I always wanted to work with animals. I was close.” The sex workers are in on the joke in this film. The men are, of course, taking advantage of women in this industry, but the women are doing the same.
However, there is some criticism of the film, as reported in Rolling Stone. Actual sex workers, some of whom are directly portrayed in the film, are not happy with the production’s treatment of them. Even the article agrees that while Hustlers is not perfect, it is a step in the right direction.
“The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.” — Ramona
By the end, I got it. I understood what these women did and why. And I don’t blame them. The tertiary males in this film are not likable — even the slightly likable ones are not great human beings. Sure, the women are sexy/sex objects, but you almost forget that as we move through the story. The viewer gets used to the lack of clothing and sees their physical and emotional strength and dominance. It is not just a stripper story — it is a human story. It’s a big story. And the women are everything.
However, Hustlers is not perfect — far from it. You can read about the more disappointing elements in Hustlers Should’ve Hustled More.
Incluvie Score: Based on diverse cast of women; Female director and writers; Wonderfully represented women of color
General Score: Exciting story with tears, laughs, and excitement; Smart, multi-dimensional characters; Beautifully shot and perfect performances
(This article was originally published by Sarah Erskine on Medium.)