Hustlers is the best movie I have seen in the cinema this year. It is an easy assertion to make, considering how commendable it is in every possible way. The movie boasts strong acting performances from Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu, a worthy supporting cast in Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart, as well as appearances from celebrities like Cardi B and Lizzo (there is also a fun cameo from Usher).
Cardi B joined the cast for the promotion of the film and, because of that, I assumed she had a bigger supporting role, however, she appears on screen for a grand total of 5 scenes (give or take). Both Cardi B and Lizzo aren’t really acting per se, they are, for the most part, embodying their usual public personas, but I love the authenticity their presence gives to the film. Cardi B used to be a stripper before she made it big in the music world, so this is a space she knew and existed in.
Contrary to the seedy world we think exists in spaces like this, director Lorene Scafaria paints a different picture, that of female friendship and camaraderie. The women who work at the club behave like a family; they take care of each other, listen to each other’s problems, and there’s even a ‘Ma’ who bakes.
It is purposeful then that these dressing rooms are lit up with fluorescent lights, where we can see everything and everyone, before the inevitable transition to the purplish hue of the main section of the nightclub, with the interiors getting darker and more reddish as we make our way to the VIP sections of the club. The colour palette of the movie is so intentional, where we see the women buying homes that are incredibly white, yet spend their nights in dim settings. They need the dim setting of the nightclub to live out their white interior consumerist dreams.
Constance Wu plays Destiny, a newbie to the club scene desperate to make money yet a bit too green to know what she’s doing. Destiny finds herself starstruck by Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), who is experienced at the pole and the club scene. I watched the behind the scenes with Jennifer Lopez as she learned how to pole dance (in preparation for this review, for I am dedicated to my craft), and she was magnificent and absolutely mesmerising (as she is in the movie).
There are few actors who could pull off the feat she does, to achieve the athleticism required as well as imbue her performance with the natural rhythmic necessities of dance, not to mention bringing the sexy while wearing a costume that looked like it was held together by a mere piece of string. Without Jennifer Lopez, this movie would not have the legs to stand, let alone sprint the way it has.
As Ramona, she is warm and nurturing, bestowing her affection upon Destiny, who feels special just by being in her presence. Motherhood is a theme that underlies the whole movie. Ramona is a mother of sorts to Destiny: both the women have children they are raising on their own, and similarly declare that they would do anything for their daughters. Men are noticeably absent, existing in the peripheries of being victimised or villainised in the narrative of this film.
They are either being hustled by the gang or come across as too aggressive, demanding services of women’s bodies that is not theirs to demand. The lines are so frequently crossed in this line of work, with money used to incite pressure on the women and force certain services. If there is reluctance to put out, then these women’s bodies are swapped out for a more willing participant. The women want to work on their own terms, with their bodies subject to their own control, but this is not always in their power to determine.
Lopez and Wu have such genuine chemistry together, as do the whole cast. The scenes where they celebrate holidays and have get-togethers are just so wholesome to watch, and you find yourself hoping that it could always be this way for them, yet knowing the ugliness of what awaits – the hustle cannot go on forever. As they drown themselves in the pursuit of the green, we find ourselves wondering why they don’t stop. After all, it isn’t just about surviving anymore. At one point Destiny herself comments on it, noting that she was waiting for the magic number that would make her stop, acknowledging that it didn’t really exist – there is always the insatiable want for more.
Scafaria sets up consistent transitions between visuals in the nightclub to shots of offices at Wall Street, drawing a parallel between them. This is significant since a pivotal part of the movie is built around the banking collapse of 2008, and the role Wall Street played in the entire thing. Ramona likens the hustle of the Wall Street guys to their own hustle, where the dollar is chased ardently, no matter the people they need to manipulate or step on to get there. Society is pretty much like a strip club: someone’s throwing the money while someone else is doing the dancing.
The premise of the movie is based on a New York magazine article that went viral, so it’s nice to see reference to that in the framing of the movie. Our movement through events is guided by the interview that Destiny has with the journalist (Julia Stiles), spilling every salacious detail in a kind of confession. While there is regret from Destiny of allowing the green flame to torch her life once upon a time, there is also the recognition that there was something genuine about that life.
This is where Hustlers succeeds tremendously, for these women who strip and dance for a living are unapologetically laid bare for us to scrutinise – their bodies, their fears, their insecurities. We are invited into spaces we are not usually privy to and yet, also see that some of these spaces are familiar to us – motherhood, the striving for agency of our own bodies and resisting attempts that seek to objectify, the desire for connection and friendship. We stand side by side with them in these spaces, seeing the “full circle” that exists in the nature of womanhood, “the power to create, nurture and transform” – empowered, united and strangers no more.
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Hustlers is striking in every way, with superb cinematography and a strong cast, all held together by a masterful performance from Jennifer Lopez.
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