Current events occur within a blink of an eye, as you scroll down your Twitter timeline several world-changing events happen in the time span of a PinkPatheress song. It’s tiring and often makes you feel like you want to shut off from everything happening. In a similar way that’s how a lot of TV and film feel to me, content thrown in your face every second of the day and nothing that lasts long enough to settle in your brain for you to think it over again. It’s been almost three years since I’ve watched Hustlers in 2019 and I can say that this is a film that has been lodged in my mind ever since. I remember that theatre experience and the awe of what was unfolding in front of my eyes like it was yesterday. Thinking about the film three years later I can say that it feels more like a movie of our time like no other at the current moment. Whilst Hustlers (2019) takes place between 2006-2014, the themes and topics it touches on include the influence of a devastating recession, the aftereffects of a war created by manufacturing consent, and the growing mishandling of sex work and how to talk about sex workers.
It feels as if we’re stuck in a time loop.
And it’s not just Hustlers that makes its mark this way, Zola (2021) brushes upon similar themes with the core difference being its source material, Zola is based upon a Twitter thread whilst Hustlers is based on New York magazine's 2015 article "The Hustlers at Scores" by Jessica Pressler. It should be noted that Pressler also wrote the article that became Inventing Anna (2022).
Films based on books, articles or even social events are not unbeknownst to Hollywood in any capacity. Think of films such as Zodiac (2007) or Almost Famous (2000), both take a book or a published article and reinvent the story for the screen. But today, it feels as if we as an audience seem to revel in seeing these stories become screen-fables instead of leaving them on the page and that may speak to the lack of diverse stories we see on the big screen. With the onslaught of MCU, Star Wars and reboots taking up so much space perhaps this speaks to a change within our culture? As Jake Nevins states:
“It’s also a reaffirmation that, even in the age of clickbait, there’s still a voracious appetite for non-fiction that’s shorter than a book but longer than a tweet.”
Whenever I bring Hustlers up in conversations the immediate response is “Oh I loved that film”, when working and socialising around film circles getting an overwhelming amount of positive responses to a film is rare in my experience. Hustlers is a force in itself, not only from its star-studded cast (Lizzo, Cardi B, Keke Palmer etc) but the incredible use of music (the Gimme More, Love in This Club, Dawn (Go Away) sequences) and its stellar writing and direction. However, what caught my eye about the film more than any of the aforementioned traits is its determination to acknowledge how capitalism intersects with the livelihoods of sex workers. Because that is what Hustlers is about; capitalism.
It’s rare that stories that surround sex work are ever given as much nuance and dimension as this film has. These characters aren’t simply existing on-screen for some self-gratification of inflicted violence, their lives are depicted in the fullness that anyone else outside of the industry would be seen in. The film centres around the life of Destiny (played by Constance Wu) and her experience as a stripper during the 2007 recession. Wu rekindles a friendship with her former co-worker Ramona (played by Jennifer Lopez), and she quickly is let into Ramona’s new business venture; stealing from rich clients. The film does not frame these women as villains, it would be more than easy to do so but instead, Lorene Scafaria paints this as a story of motherhood, grief and a loss of control. Yes, these women are angry but rightfully so, their anger and distrust of the systems that have failed them is not a moral failing of these characters in any capacity. And when we compare the era the film takes place in with today, it seems like a perfect parallel.
At one point when explaining her scheme to Destiny, Lopez’s character states:
“Look, baby, we got to start thinking like these Wall Street guys. You see what they did to this country? They stole from everybody. Hardworking people lost everything. And not one of these douchebags went to jail. Not one. Is that fair? You ever think about when they come into the club? That's stolen money. That's what's paying for their blow jobs.”
During the 2016 Oscars, Adam McKay’s The Big Short was nominated for a total of five awards, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing (they won the Best Adapted Screenplay award). Hustlers wasn’t nominated for a single Oscar. I know bringing up nominations is contentious and that some may argue The Big Short is simply a better film but the point here is that both these films have a similar core theme and ideology. One talks about rich white men taking down the system they benefited from, the other about women of colour taking back what they were owed. And it isn’t as if Hustlers wasn’t given mass critical reception, especially throughout the festival circuits, the film scored nominations from Toronto International Film Festival, Rome Film Festival, Gotham Awards, New York Film Critics Online, Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association, Women Film Critics Circle, Chicago Film Critics Association, Hollywood Critics Association and the Independent Spirit Awards to name a few.
Perhaps this speaks to a larger cultural issue of Hustlers still being viewed as other specifically because of how it treats its characters as actual people, a film that wasn’t relying on gratuitous depictions of trauma about marginalised people isn’t exactly what the Academy wants. To speak about this further I interviewed a friend of mine who works in the Sex Work industry, and for her safety and anonymity, I’ll refer to her as Mariah.
When speaking to Mariah about the snub she states the following:
“Even though we are visible. Visibility isn’t enough. Therefore, an award show that rewards respectability was never going to acknowledge a film that didn’t fully disparage the worker or convince them to take on a civil role in society. The workers in Hustlers didn’t hate themselves or mostly have horrendous backstories of abuse. They had lives. They were people, and that is the antithesis of what Hollywood is – even if they were portrayed by celebrities.”
And that’s true, the film didn’t fully disparage the workers but it would be amiss to ignore the claims that in preparation for the role Lopez did in fact do that. She was reported to have gone into various strip clubs to do ‘research’ for the film and workers at the club shut down for the movie have since come out stating that Lopez and her production company did not treat them well or compensate them. Lack of compensation is something that follows the film further when we look at reports of the real-life counterpart of Lopez’s character stating that she was wholly underpaid for the movie. Samantha Barbash, who inspired the original piece written by Pressler has lodged a $40 million lawsuit against Lopez, who allegedly offered her $6,000 for her participation.
Having stories of curious source material such as Hustlers and Zola helps when they destigmatize and ultimately allow us to have conversations about how we can aid and support sex workers, but it shouldn’t come at a cost to the workers who are being put out of work or are being unpaid.
Mariah speaks on this further, stating:
“[In regards to Hustlers and Jennifer Lopez], if the film truly cared about workers, and their stories – they would have compensated them for their work, especially in Hustlers and honestly even the original person they interviewed. I think it goes to show the failures of representation in Hollywood, what we ask for and what we really should be asking for. Audiences regularly ask to see “deviant” femmes in film but when you obstruct the survival of in real life deviant femmes; then you are working against the interests of the marginalised. You are aligned with the state, thus the police. They don’t truly want to see “deviant” whores etc. in the mainstream - they want it cosplayed. It’s the current hot topic. Additionally, I don’t know if they truly want to see any sort of stories that represent whores but instead if they want the sexy iconography. Someone to worship, someone to stan.”
One may ask why I bring up issues surrounding the film for an article that celebrates movies such as Hustlers, especially considering this is for a film festival screening on Curious movies. But I would argue that it is the role of a critic and film lover to make sure that we hold movies towards the light so we see all aspects of what they are presenting to us. Hustlers is an important film and that should not be understated but when your job is to represent marginalised people who face the threat of violence both at interpersonal levels and systemic levels, we should ask if on-screen representation is enough to help.