Blame Madonna that media praise for the movie Hustlers defends female exploitation as female empowerment. But Hustlers has shallower roots than any Madonna film or music video. It’s a piece of unoriginal indoctrination, pushing the new vengeful wave of self-promotional, misandrist feminism. (The Kitchen and Widows recently peddled the same.)
Every scene in this caper-voyeur flick lays out the greedy, heartless schemes run by a group of NYC strippers led by Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), Destiny (Constance Wu), Mercedes (Keke Palmer), Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) and Diamond (Cardi B). They become drug dealers and extortionists to Wall Street businessmen while whining about the 2008 financial crisis. Exploiting themselves to exploit the men who exploit them is tautology that makes sense only to feminist ideologues and Hollywood panderers.
Despite Millennial blather about female agency and economic equality, Hustlers is in a familiar line of post-Madonna Hollywood procurement fantasies. Each woman’s sob story about abuse and resentment brought me back to a 1990 incident: A middle-aged female friend interrupted a group of adolescent girls fawning over Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. She asked them, “What do you think about her being a prostitute?” and the teenager gaggle shot back, “She’s not a prostitute!” Hollywood passed off Roberts’s hooker as Cinderella — or maybe Eliza Doolittle. Naïveté is an easy training ground for the oldest profession.
Then, in 1996’s Set It Off, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, Jada Pinkett, and Kimberly Elise played hard-luck blue-collar women who become bank robbers to make ends meet. (The premise was later repeated by Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah, and Katie Holmes in 2001’s Mad Money, corrupting the age-old wisdom of women having their own financial means.)
In 1998, rapper Ice Cube performed a tour de force of writing, directing, and acting in The Players Club, a ribald yet serious street drama about Diamond (LisaRaye McCoy), a single mother in Los Angeles who becomes a stripper, literally “working her way through college,” as a 1952 Virginia Mayo–Ronald Reagan movie promised. But Cube’s vernacular classic — and LisaRaye’s bodacious characterization — faced down moral hypocrisy and its unpleasant costs for some. Cube bluntly explored underclass economic advancement, yet liberal Hollywood typically overlooked the achievement of an unpredictable black independent filmmaker pre-Obama.
So it’s no wonder that critics who also ignored Lopez’s career peak El Cantante, in which she vividly portrayed the tough sexy wife of salsa king Hector Lavoe, are excited about this boobs-bling-booty showcase. In Hustlers, Lopez’s single-minded stripper-pole dance — the film’s highpoint — blurs Ramona’s bad-taste desperation with her own. It’s already been acclaimed as a sure-fire Oscar bid as if to encourage being confined to stereotype.
Lopez’s Vegas-y extravaganza isn’t the same as LisaRaye McCoy’s “don’t knock the hustle” realism in The Players Club. She can’t compete with ex-stripper-turned-rapper Cardi B, the film’s only authentic figure (you can bet her character Diamond is surely an homage to McCoy). Yet even Cardi B flounces on the slippery edge of gross, stupid carnality. In hip-hop, humor is Cardi B’s saving grace, but director Lorene Scafaria isn’t a mirthful filmmaker (she highlights Cardi B’s sticking out her tongue).
Scafaria seems to believe this whoremaster self-empowerment crap, credulous about its New York magazine origin. Her stripper-gangstas are, simply, criminals. Hustlers is appalling. The opposite of slut-shaming, it’s been praised as Goodfellas for women — as if that were an honorable thing.
In Bob Fosse’s 1969 Sweet Charity (just released on KINO Blu-Ray), three musical numbers make Hustlers irrelevant: “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” performed by a trio of Times Square goodtime girls (Shirley MacLaine, Paula Kelly, Chita Rivera) who climb to the rooftop of the taxi-dance parlor, where they “entertain” men, to dream of being anything but sex workers. “Rhythm of Life” shows MacLaine’s search for spiritual fulfillment through alternative religion (Fosse’s satire on New Age nostrums). In “Hey, Big Spender!” — one of the all-time great movie-musical sequences — each sizzling dance move added a bitter punctuation mark, equalizing tramps and johns in two-way sexual commerce. Fosse’s spectacular, honest, moral leveling still surpasses progressive Hollywood.
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