"This is a story about control."
Janet Jackson's trademark whisper echoes on screen with soft ferocity as the opening images from Hustlers appear. A beautiful Asian woman sits in front of a mirror surrounded by lingerie-clad bombshells preening and primping themselves and each other. "And this time / I'm gonna do it my way." She stares at her face and applies shiny, iridescent pink lip gloss. Janet is right; Hustlers is a story about control.
Starring Jennifer Lopez and Crazy Rich Asians' Constance Wu, Hustlers is based on the true story of two New York City strippers who, after the market crash of 2008, embarked on an elaborate scheme to lure wealthy Wall Street bros to their strip club, pump them with MDMA and ketamine, then run up their credit and debit cards, taking a large cut of the final tab in a pre-made deal with the club. The MDMA made their targets happy, and the ketamine wiped their memory, making it the near-perfect crime, until it wasn't.
The film owes its genesis to a 2015 New York magazine article about the true story of real-life strippers-turned-hustlers Samantha Foxx and Roselyn Keo. "I was sent the article in the summer of 2016 and as soon as I read it I felt compelled to tell the story," Hustlers writer and director Lorene Scafaria told VICE. "It just felt like it touched a certain nerve and talked about themes that I was really interested in talking about. It felt like a really exciting, kind of epic movie, even on paper."
Hustlers (which also stars Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Julia Stiles, Lizzo, and Cardi B) is a wildly entertaining romp—it's a sexy crime drama, an exuberant, if not campy, dramedy about female friendship, a snapshot into the extremes taken post-market collapse to secure financial security, and a mirroring of our larger cultural embrace and fascination with strippers (see videos from Rihanna, FKA Twigs, Solange, and the careers of Cardi B, Blac Chyna, and many up-and-coming rappers). It's also a morality tale that leaves the audience to decide where the right, wrong, and gray areas might lie in drugging and robbing the men who brought on the 2008 market crash that left millions financially devastated. To quote The Players Club, another iconic film about a strip club, it's a lesson in "using what you've got to get what you want."
"[Control is] certainly a big part of what these women are dealing with at their jobs," said Scafaria. "The truth is, they are in control. They're in control of their bodies, they're in control of what they do with it, how they use it."
And the protagonists definitely flex that. Destiny, played by Wu, finds that the club offers her a space to gain the independence and self-reliance she craves, especially as a single mom who was abandoned by her parents and now supports the grandmother who raised her. For Ramona—the maternal, street-smart, Bronx-bred mastermind behind the scheme, and truly a role Lopez was born to play—the club is a means of survival that also affords her the luxuries she desires (Gucci shoes, an Escalade) and the ability to give her daughter the advantages she didn't have.
"If Ramona is the sun shining on you, it's a warm place to be," explained Scafaria. "If she's staring at you too much, you might get burned. When she's looking away, it's cold in the shade. She's a mother figure and a big sister, and a ring leader. Jennifer, honestly, has that quality about her. If she told you to get in her fur coat and do bad things you might just say yes."
It's hard to deny Ramona's magnetism (and by extension Lopez's) after what will surely become known as the Infamous Dance Scene. While it's widely known that Lopez is a skilled, trained dancer who has performed in arenas around the world, watching her bounce her illustrious, fully bare glutes up and down on a club stage to the tune of Fiona Apple's "Criminal" while surrounded by dollar bills is not something anyone can easily recover from. Is it on par with what dancers at legendary strip clubs like Atlanta's Magic City or L.A.'s Ace of Diamonds do? Probably not. But it's still a sight to behold.
The entire scene also pulls off the rare feat of not feeling like an exploitation of a woman's body for the male gaze; instead, it pays homage to the work of a stripper as an art form. It is also emblematic of Ramona's power, the command she conjures through the sheer boldness of her presence and bangingness of her body. The men handing over their stacks of cash are awestruck, and so is Destiny, who sees in Ramona something to aspire to, someone whose dominance of the stage reflects the authority she holds in her life. In another director's hands, this could've been a bawdy excuse to see some booty, but in Scafaria's hands, the dance allows us to marvel at Lopez's athleticism and see why Destiny—or anyone, for that matter—would want to follow Ramona into this kind of scheme.
But those money moves can't keep Ramona or Destiny safe forever. The market crash forces both women into survival mode, as the club suffers from the repercussions of much of its extremely rich, creepy clientele losing their jobs on Wall Street. While pre-2008 was about raking up thick stacks of bills and dancing for Usher (another excellent scene in the film), the financial collapse forces Ramona to get, well, creative.
That's when she turns to "fishing," a term for luring rich guys at fancy bars into the strip club, where she and her hot cohorts get them even more drunk and run up their tab, taking a cut from the club. Drugging them becomes the essential shortcut to ensuring a fat payday. While the film changes the names of those involved in the scheme, as well as some of the details, it is an almost point-by-point account of what actually went down. And considering an old Instagram live video of Cardi B recently resurfaced in which she admitted to drugging and robbing men during her own stripper days in New York City, it adds another layer of veracity and authenticity to the film as a whole. Not unlike Ramona and Destiny, Cardi responded to the video on social media by saying "I did what I had to do to survive." Plus, do we really feel bad for these men?
"It never felt like I needed to invent too much more than what they did to the country and the global economy to feel like that what was coming to them was some kind of revenge," said Scafaria. "But I also didn't want to vilify in any extra ways. We know bad behavior when we see it; we know right from wrong, we know creeps from nice guys."
As Ramona and her co-conspirators get increasingly greedy, the line of who and who isn't worthy of the growing cashflow gets blurred, and the Escalade they're cruising in begins to feel like it's veering downhill with no brakes. This metaphor becomes central to Destiny's growing realization that things are getting out of hand. Eventually, the law is what stops them and they must relinquish control altogether. What's left is their story, and it's a compelling one.
As Ramona says, "This city, this whole country, is a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance." Hustlers explores this with the nuance it deserves, free of judgement or preaching. Everyone is out there trying to make money and take money, and gain the control that comes with having money.
As Janet sang, "I want to make my own decisions / When it has to do with my life / I wanna be the one in control." We're all willing to go to different, maybe extreme lengths, to secure that power over our lives, because living without that control means giving up yourself.
Hustlers is in theaters Sept. 13.
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Alex Zaragoza is the senior culture writer at VICE. Follow her on Twitter.