The excellent new film Hustlers examines the seedy playground that comprises much of the NYC nightlife, and where the hucksters of Wall Street revel in reckless debauchery. The pathologically depraved behavior of the men from the world of finance will eventually garner implications for the world over, but it’s reassuring to know that the savvy women in this film ensured that at least a few of them got the comeuppance that they so richly deserved. In Hustlers, after these men exploit them as disposable entertainment, these women turn the tables, co-opting the same hustling techniques that brought down our nation’s economy to get their own small piece of the pie.
Hustlers is a revelation in its respectful and sympathetic portrayal of an ethnically diverse group of women who, as professional strippers, are too often condemned by a judgmental society as amoral and sleazy. The film begins several years before the Great Recession. Manhattan is awash with Wall Street money and the good times are rolling as far as the eye can see. Much of the Wall Street money is spent at strip clubs where the film shows how many of the female dancers are blatantly ripped off by their male employers who illegally skim off their tips leaving these poor women with a scant percentage of the money they’ve earned by catering to the often humiliating whims of their male clients. This illegal practice has real ramifications for these women as the film illustrates with the character of Destiny, a young Asian-American woman who lives with her elderly grandmother and is valiantly trying to support her with her modest income as an entertainer and dancer at a strip club. At one, she soon meets Ramona Vega, a beautiful, savvy exotic dancer who is at the top of her game, earning a very lucrative living as a pole dancer. She is brilliantly played by Jennifer Lopez, herself a native New Yorker of Puerto Rican heritage. If there is one female entertainer in Hollywood who exemplifies the fulfillment of the American Dream it is Ms. Lopez. The American dream being the idea that anyone can make it, can achieve success if they work hard, and possess talent, tenacity, and drive. And if there are any female roles this year that exemplifies the struggle to obtain this increasingly elusive dream, it’s the characters of Ramona Vega, and Destiny.
From the get-go, Ramona takes a struggling Destiny under her wing and shares her successful tricks of “the trade.” The strongest scenes are those focusing on the friendship. When Destiny leaves an abusive relationship, Ramona helps her secure employment at the club. When Destiny experiences a death in her family, Ramona goes to the funeral, offering sympathy and affection. The friendship is never depicted as a rivalry, and even as their criminal enterprise begins to collapse around them, it’s clear that they retain respect and affection for one another.
Hustlers also succeeds in presenting both Ramona and Destiny as devoted, loving mothers, solely responsible for their respective daughters, the fathers having long since skipped out on their parental duties. Ramona understands Destiny’s love for her daughter and jokingly reassures her that “motherhood is a mental illness.” She may just be right. And the film shows us how that particular brand of mental illness likely begins.
Destiny does attempt to obtain “legitimate” work in retail, but the gatekeepers reject her for lack of experience. So, how, she asks, does she get that experience if nobody will hire her to begin with? And even when Ramona does manage to secure employment in a clothing store, her request for a slight change in her work schedule to accommodate her young daughter’s new school schedule is denied on the grounds that the male staff never ask for time off to manage child care issues and that she’ll simply have to hire a babysitter-as if she could afford one on minimum wage.
Hustlers captures the complexity of their lives as Ramona and Destiny struggle to balance work and motherhood, a dilemma to which many working mothers can relate. In one telling scene, Destiny rushes home to take her young daughter to school while still dressed in a skimpy outfit, not having time to change into more conventional wear. It’s a poignant scene, as Destiny is coming home from a harrowing evening where she put herself in peril after a client was injured.
Regardless of what they might want, what choice do these women have but to work in strip clubs? But in the aftermath of the Great Recession, when the money dries up and even the strip clubs are no longer a viable source of income, Destiny and Ramona must fight for it using whatever weapons they have at their disposal.
Hustlers rightfully depicts them as brave, intelligent, and ultimately heroic individuals who are simply trying to survive. The audience cannot help but admire, at least to some extent, their street smarts as they operate their enterprise, giving the men of Wall Street a run for their money. At one point, while they are flourishing, Destiny states with confidence, “I could work on Wall Street.” Indeed, these two women possessed enough smarts between them that they could have probably run Wall Street, and likely not ruined the economy in the process. But because of their gender and underprivileged background, they were never given the chance to use their street smarts for anything beyond day-to-day survival.
After the Great Recession, which brought the global economy to near collapse, no one on Wall Street was ever criminally prosecuted. Meanwhile, Ramona and Destiny are both arrested and ultimately took pleas to avoid jail time. What a travesty. Clearly not all Hustlers are treated equally. Perhaps Ramona says it best, “This city-this whole country is a strip club. Some people are throwing the money, and some are doing the dance.”
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