In the acclaimed fact-based drama, the bond between women is shown with rare sensitivity and depth even as they engage in criminal acts

The marketing campaign for Hustlers, a film that opened to an unexpectedly impressive $33m at the US box office last weekend, presents the film as a fun, woke, neon-soaked update of Coyote Ugly. But behind the pink-and-blue-hued ads showcasing the stars Jennifer Lopez and Cardi B, lies powerful commentary on the nature of female intimacy, a mass market shell hiding surprisingly incisive feminism.

Based on a 2015 New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler, the film follows a band of strippers as they drug unsuspecting Wall Street bankers post-recession while running up their credit cards, with Ramona (Lopez) and Destiny (Constance Wu) at the schemes helm. Sandwiched between a poppy soundtrack and J-Los acrobatic poledancing are insights on the romance of friendship, capitalism in America and the potential and pitfalls of female solidarity.

After seeing Ramona dance for the first time a glittery display of agile ass-shaking that ends with her rolling around on the floor in a pile of money bright-eyed and bushy-tailed newbie Destiny tiptoes outside to join her while she smokes a cigarette. Jacketless, Ramona draws Destiny into the warmth of her fur coat. She rests her chin on Destinys head. Destiny looks up at Ramona innocently. Its a scene of startling intimacy and one can already feel the energy between the pair molding into something like love, an early sign of their ride-or-die bond. Were accustomed to seeing films present sisterly loyalty soon ruptured by jealousy but instead, Hustlers shows something far less cliche.

The film, written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (a rare female lens for a film about stripping), perfectly captures both the depth and fragility of girlfriends who feel more like family and theres sincerity within the performances of Wu and Lopez. As the maternal lioness, Lopez exudes warmth while also maintaining her position as the projects in-control mastermind. For her part, Wu embodies the clever protege gunning for independence, who sees in Ramona both strategy and support. We feel every swell of euphoric acceptance and sting of betrayal between the women. In the end, both are blinded and blindsided by their love for each other.

Lili
Lili Reinhart, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer and Constance Wu in Hustlers. Photograph: Barbara Nitke/AP

Even as Destiny betrays Ramona, they still part lovingly. Destiny admits shes accepted a plea deal from the police and for a moment, Ramona cant contain her feelings. She tries to hold back tears, but her role as the fierce pack mom cracks all the same. When Destiny explains that she took the deal to protect her daughter Lily, Ramona nods her head and gives a tender look of understanding. Motherhood is a mental illness, she sighs, before burying Destiny in a hug, only to let her go abruptly and stalk away.

Part of what bonds Destiny and Ramona is their shared understanding of what it takes to survive in America. Moving through life by the skin of their teeth, Destiny and Ramonas Robin Hood plan to steal from the rich to give to the poor only highlights the ways in which the American dream fails women of color.

In a subtle yet piercing way, Hustlerscalls for an intersectional approach to female allyship. Pressler is played on-screen by a prim Julia Stiles, renamed as Jennifer rather than Jessica, and her scenes with Destiny highlight an ignorance over cultural and class differences which has arguably led to todays sorry state of female solidarity. While being interviewed, Destiny questions Jennifers singular interest in the Wall Street druggings above all else. Kind of hard not to be, Stiles replies dismissively. Without missing a beat, Destiny flatly asks where Jennifer went to school (Brown) and what her parents did for a living (a journalist and a psychologist), highlighting the sweeping differences in opportunity between them. Jennifers power (and profit) depends on her ability to frame a decision that Destiny is still atoning for. In a recent Vanity Fair article, Samantha Barbash from whom J-Los character Ramona takes her inspiration, claimed that she did not participate in the making of the movie because they did not offer her enough money. I have bags that are worth more than what they wanted to pay me, she claimed. This leaves one to wonder if Hustlers has lived up to its own call to action.

Male violence also flickers under the films surface, the shadow of patriarchy always looming. The tension is most palpable in scenes where the dancers are alone in the champagne room with clients. Money buys sex but the women giving pleasure are completely dispensable to the men receiving it. Its OK if you dont believe me, Destiny tells Jennifer, Im used to people not believing me. This poignant line highlights the improbability yet vital necessity of women supporting each other at a time when its needed more than ever. As the recently surfaced Kavanaugh sexual assault allegations and Chanel Millers new book make clear, if women dont listen to each other, no one will. By the time Ramonas plot springs into action, no one feels sorry for the trickling bank accounts of the Wall Street tycoons, the context of the 2008 recession allowing for a wider critique of capitalism. This whole countrys a strip club, Ramona clarifies, You have people tossing the money and people doing the dance.

In a year in which gender inequality and the possibility of economic recession remain as worryingly relevant as they did 10 years ago, Hustlers provides a vital and melancholic look at power imbalance in America. Its a film that points to the countrys own frustrating contradictions the rising awareness of male toxicity yet the the minimal accountability for it, the feminist movements troubling lack of inclusivity but its sincerity is ultimately most overwhelming. Women are urged to stick together rather than drift apart both in the strip club and in the world at large.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

 

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