December 12, 2019

Hustlers (2019)

Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu

First off, let me just say congratulations to Jennifer Lopez on her Golden Globe nomination for this movie! Did you ever think we'd see the day when a movie led by WOC, directed by a WOC, about strippers but not from a male gaze would ever be up for recognition?!? Maybe I'm overexcited but I think this is actually a huge step in the "we only take historical dramas and white man angst" type movies that tend to dominate awards shows.

So. The movie. 

This is the third time I've been able to tag the post with the word "strippers" (thank you, Magic Mike) so that should really tell you where my cinematic tastes lie. But to call this is just a "stripper movie" would be doing it a huge disservice, because it's not really about strippers at all. (Not that it would be a problem if it were, but just that people might otherwise wrongly avoid the movie.)

This is a movie about friendship. About empowerment. About struggling in a male-dominated society. About how the culture of power and money intersects with that. About love and survival and forgiveness. It's about nearly everything but stripping. 

And this is where I circle back to the power of a female director. I'm not saying men can't handle women's stories. But how easy would it have been for this movie to have fallen into a trap where stripper = broken woman a la Natalie Portman in Closer? The stripping in this movie isn't done just for tantalizing fantasy moments. They serve a purpose. We get to know the characters through their actions and yes, how exactly they perform. The decisions in this movie are made thoughtfully, finely layered atop one another so that when it's all over, you can go back and unravel it all to see how it was put together. 

It might seem hyperbolic to tout the brilliance of a film about strippers. But ask yourself, why? Why do we, as a society, romanticize and uphold films about gangsters and mafia while looking down on movies that follow a similar premise, but in which the women use their bodies instead of guns? Why is one genre inherently more deserving of praise and acclaim than the other? Because I can't stop thinking about this interview with Jennifer Lopez in which she says she gets to play Joe Pesci to Constance Wu's Ray Liotta. When will we learn to appreciate female-led crime dramas that don't simply mimic the same tone and tenor of male-led crime dramas?

All that being said, I'm not saying this is my favorite movie of the year or even that this movie is more deserving of awards nods than other movies. What I am saying is that I wish we would embrace a wider range of movies, especially for women, and that we be allowed to explore female characters without them being dismissed as particular types of women, undeserving of a deeper dive. Sex workers are an easy target for discrimination, ridicule, and even outright abuse. To see a nuanced portrayal of even a small subsection of them, and to have those performances singled out for acclaim, I think, is a triumph.

Also, this movie made me cry, which is always a win in my book. 

Final word: If you can watch Goodfellas, you can watch Hustlers without getting uppity about it.

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