It’s 2007, and strip clubs are having a kind of cultural moment. As we see in the opening of “Hustlers,” that means the dancers are wearing designer furs and leather boots, and the customers, former fraternity brothers working on Wall Street, are more than happy to blow thousands of dollars after a grueling nine to five. Destiny (Constance Wu) is the newest performer at the club Moves, and she’s quickly taken under the wing—or in this case, the fur—of veteran dancer Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), who teaches Destiny how to work the pole, give a proper lap dance and even introduces her to some regular customers. The two soon discover that their double act makes seducing men, and earning tips, all too easy.
But “Hustlers” isn’t just hedonistic escapism. The film is in fact based on actual people and actual events: Destiny’s off-screen equivalent is named Roselyn Keo, and Ramona’s character represents real-life Samantha Barbash. In 2015, Keo and Barbash, dancers at real-world club Scores, gained notoriety when an article published in “The Cut” described the duo’s years-long operation of drugging white-collar men and maxing out their credit cards.
And that’s exactly what happens in the movie. First, the 2008 financial crisis strikes, and nearly all the Wall Street bros stop partying. Strip clubs, once a glittery oasis of beautiful women and bottle service, now sit half empty. So with children to raise and the future uncertain, Ramona introduces a plan to Destiny: along with associates Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), the dancers will target rich men at bars, get them drunk and then escort them to Moves. While there, the women will coerce the guy into racking up charges on his credit card, having worked out a deal with the club to ensure the quartet gets a cut of however much he spends.
Wu is wonderfully textural in these spaces, much more so than in “Crazy Rich Asians,” deftly balancing her character’s shark-like acumen (like when she cries crocodile tears while dropping off an unconscious guy at the hospital before cooly sauntering back to her car) with her introspection (like when she breaks down in actual tears of regret during a post-factum interview with a journalist). Lopez also delivers a solid performance in “Hustlers.” Her best scene, which appears early on in the movie when Ramona performs a solo dance at the pole. It’s an impressive display that is equal parts sexy, playful, and powerful, and required Lopez to train for weeks. Also notable is that the film had a female director, Lorene Scafaria, behind the camera, and therefore avoids the typical male gaze in these shots, always maintaining a certain physical distance from Lopez, never lingering on her body and altogether respecting the actor’s space.
The rest of the cast, too, is impressive. Though Mercedes and Annabelle aren’t particularly dynamic characters, Palmer and Reinhart deliver amusing performances. There’s also a cameo from Usher, whose appearance leads to one of my favorite scenes in the movie: when the dancers hear that the famous musician has arrived at Moves, all the women get on stage for a fun and convivial group dance, backed by “Love in This Club.” Among these performers are rapper Cardi B and pop sensation Lizzo, who are greatly entertaining in their bit parts.
Of course, Cardi’s role in “Hustlers” is also notable given that the artist’s own backstory nearly parallels the film’s plot. Earlier this year, a clip from an old Instagram Live video resurfaced, featuring the rapper claiming she used to drug and rob men who offered her money for sex when she worked as a stripper. In response, many likened her actions to that of R. Kelly, using the hashtag #SurvivingCardiB, a reference to the title of a Lifetime docuseries about R. Kelly’s predatory and abusive behavior.
What differentiates Cardi B, and real-life Keo and Barbash, from the ranks of R. Kelly? First and foremost, comparing rape and theft is simply a false equivalency. Moreover, the latter has been accused by many, over an extended period of time, of using his power as a celebrity to rape and abuse women and young girls. Meanwhile, Cardi, Keo and Barbash were in vulnerable positions and have argued that they drugged and robbed men to survive their circumstances. It’s worth remembering that strip clubs are structured in a way that exploits the dancers, forcing the women to pay clubs for the “privilege” of working there and requiring that the women also tip the bartender, hosts, DJ and house mom. The men who frequented Scores (and Moves) were oftentimes sexually aggressive, and even verbally or physically abusive. These were also the men whose entire life on Wall Street was predicated on stealing from others. If the movie has anything to say about Cardi B, Keo or Barbash, then, it’s perhaps not a message of justification but one of explanation, at the very least seeking to humanize sex workers and their courses of action for survival. So, with Scafaria’s help, maybe strip clubs are having another cultural moment, now in 2019—the workers who make their living there certainly deserve it.