How Hustlers upends Hollywood’s usual take on a strip-club story

The strip club is a familiar setting for Hollywood films, but Hustlers offers a fresh take seen through a distinctively female lens, thanks to writer-director Lorene Scafaria and a diverse cast of women.

When Jennifer Lopez makes her entrance in Hustlers — delivering a memorable pole-dance to Fiona Apple’s Criminal and clad in a glittering g-string that leaves little to the imagination — it offers a view we haven’t often seen before on film. 

And it’s not the one you might think.

Yes, it’s undeniably sexual. But the sequence is also athletic and commanding: showcasing a confident performer in total control of her body, how she looks and drawing the exact reactions she wants — from the bawdy whoops of money-tossing men to the awe of a young colleague (played by Crazy Rich Asians star Constance Wu).

With her third feature, Scafaria shines a light into the world of strip clubs — where the dancers who serve as the main attraction often get taken advantage of — and how a band of ambitious, complicated women turn the tables on the system in an attempt to gain control over their own lives and livelihoods. 

The glitzy, female-focused crime thriller is loosely based on a 2015 New York Magazine article about a group of former strip club workers-turned-high-stakes grifters who concoct an illicit scheme to drug wealthy Wall Street clients and empty their wallets. 

Telling a story from a little-heard perspective was one of the things that excited Scafaria, who said that few onscreen depictions of strippers showcase their humanity or explore their lives with empathy.

“I like taking characters who maybe feel misunderstood and trying to see if people can understand them a little more,” she said in Toronto on Friday, a day before Hustlers made its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

“I felt a real responsibility to show their point of view in there and what they go through in life.”

Though Scafaria was enlisted as the screenwriter to adapt Hustlers from Jessica Pressler’s New York magazine piece, someone else was initially sought to helm it: director Martin Scorsese. Through development hiccups — after original studio Annapurna Pictures exited, STX Films acquired the project — the Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed director passed and Scafaria and her producers successfully convinced the financial backers she was the right person to direct the movie. 

Female-led onscreen and off

A key part of Scafaria’s vision was to put a diverse range of women onscreen to reflect women from all walks of life. She mixes “megawatt stars” like Lopez and Wu with top recording artists like Cardi B and Lizzo as well as performers she’d met and been inspired by, like actress Trace Lysette, opera-singing pole dancer Marcy Richardson and Canadian comedian, writer and stripper Jacqueline Frances, aka Jacq The Stripper. 

Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Mercedes Ruehl and Madeline Brewer round out the main cast.

Cardi B and Constance Wu were part of a female-led cast and creative team. (STXfilms/Elevation Pictures)

Hustlers was female-led off-screen as well: along with Scafaria’s writing and direction, the movie was edited and largely produced by women (including Lopez). 

Working alongside so many women on Hustlers “was a joy,” according to Wu. But the rising star — known as much for her role on TV’s Fresh Off the Boat as for her activism when it comes to representation — is eager for more. 

“We’re having this one moment where we have this table that’s run by women [in this] story that’s about and by and for women and that’s great. We can’t just have one,” she noted in Toronto.

“I would like for it not to be extraordinary that we have an all-female team. I would like that to be just normal, you know? Nobody blinks an eye when you have an all-male team. No one’s like ‘Oh why did you do that?”

Following its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, Hustlers opens in theatres Friday.

Read more at CBC.ca