One of the most stigmatized groups in media are sex workers, whether they’re strippers, porn stars, or any other type of person directly selling sex. Time and time again, these roles are oversexualized, objectified and viewed solely through the male gaze. Now, in 2019, there are still films like this, but there is also pushback against these stereotypes.
Hustlers is a film based on the true story of a group of women who go from stripping for to drugging men and stealing their money. The movie is very well done, and frames the women as Robin Hood types, doing what they had to do in a broken system.
A lot of the film’s qualities can be attributed to the brilliant directing from Lorene Scafaria, who does a wonderful job at constructing the story. She shows the true hardships of the women, never glorifying their jobs or oversexualizing them. Even while scenes including stripping and nudity were sexual, they don’t feel overdone. Instead they feel natural, just showing women doing their jobs. It’s an anti-male gaze.
This would not have been possible without a female director. In the history of films and shows, male directors try to make it too sexy instead of just presenting the work as it is — inherently sexual, but still work, that has its highs and lows. Scafaria’s attention to cinematography and mood place the focus away from bodies and instead towards what the characters’ actions mean for the story beats and emotion.
While the plot and pacing are occasionally shaky, the dedication and care gone into the film are present in every scene. The cinematography is amazing, and the decision to frame the story around an interview with a journalist works extremely well. It allows for narration that doesn’t feel out of place and reflections about the main character that wouldn’t be present if it was told entirely in the moment of the action.
The leads, Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu, are incredible. Lopez is masterful with her lines: every word carrying emotion and strength. From her first spoken words, the character feels fully realized and complex. Wu is also exquisite in her performance. Every little emotion is demonstrated perfectly in the way she carries herself and the nuances to her facial expressions. When these two women share a screen, the chemistry is palpable.
The problems in Hustlers mostly come from pacing. The film has to tell the story of the druggings, but it also has to set up the friendship between its main characters. To do this it has to skip around from 2007 to 2015, and some parts of this are underdeveloped. The beginning is well done, with a focus on the beginning of Wu and Lopez’s friendship that also allows for some fun scenes and side cameos including Cardi B, Lizzo, and Usher. Though after this section, the movie rushes, skipping through the 2008 financial crash and the years that follow, eventually leading to the start of the drugging scheme.
This section of the movie is extremely strong, but because of the side plot of the interview, parts of it don’t get enough time. While side characters like Keke Palmer’s Mercedes and Lili Reinhart’s Annabelle are fun to watch on screen, they don’t get enough character development. Instead they are characterized by a few traits: Mercedes’ boyfriend in prison and Annabelle’s tendency to vomit. The chemistry between these characters is still there, but it could have been fleshed out more.
The best part of this movie is how it shows strong women of color taking control of their lives. It places them at the forefront of the story, instead of as sob story side characters. This choice is empowering and revolutionary, especially given the power they have over the Wall Street businessmen they take advantage of. By comparing the thievery of American capitalism to the hustle of these women, the film manages to empower women of color.
Hustlers is a pretty good movie. The performances are amazing, and while there are flaws here and there, it’s a mostly compelling script. The respect toward its mostly working class women of color in sex work characters, is amazing to see on screen. Hopefully it starts a trend towards more representative movies.