Although four women starred in Hustlers, it is not a women’s empowerment film. Hustlers introduces audiences to a true crime story where instead of a mafia family powered by generations of loyalty and wealth or street gang with manpower and weaponry, viewers are presented with a band of strippers in sorority fashion. Finding a house mother in Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), Destiny (Constance Wu), Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) foster a sisterhood with the mission of bypassing ethical constraints, taking their piece of riches reserved for wealthy, white men.
Ramona exclaims proudly, “Are you kidding me, a bag can never be too big,” pushing a shy Destiny out of her less-gaudy comfort zone. Although Ramona was referring to the size of an actual designer bag while enjoying an afternoon of luxury shopping, the metaphorical “bag” was always on her mind and ultimately their downfall. Although Hustlers is based on the true story told in a 2015 editorial feature on The Cut, we have heard it before. The 1998 film The Players Club, written and directed by Ice Cube, shares a similar narrative. The main character, Diana, stage name Diamond (LisaRaye McCoy), is ruled by the mantra “make that money, don’t let it make you.”
While watching Hustlers it was hard not to imagine The Players Club. A film portraying the struggles young female strippers face to secure their version of financial security, Hustlers tells a story almost mirroring what was chronicled 21 years ago with The Players Club. The commonalities between the two protagonists go beyond the pole and the stark differences between Diamond and Destiny show two sides of one coin.
On and off screen, exotic dancers possess elite skills often downplayed or overlooked by men and women with traditional jobs. Through hypnotizing moves, strippers play on overtly sexual behavior to entice customers to spend money while simultaneously facing degrading, possessive and violent reactions from the same patrons and sometimes peers. In both The Players Club and Hustlers, the exotic dancers are presented as the main characters with ambitions and desires. Each woman enters the profession hoping to secure the biggest bag. However, they must combat societal systems designed to ensure women remain in second place.
The ladies of Hustlers attempt to gain financial security on their own terms and to do so, decide to drug and scam men who, more often than not, had thousands upon thousands to lose. Taking direction from the moral compass of a society ruled by capitalism and confirmed by patriarchy, these women hoped that flipping the script on the men who upheld these systems would land them on their own two feet.
Diamond, of The Players Club, begins dancing to pay her way through college. Her initial four-year hustle plan included taking classes by day and working at night, but the young co-ed did not expect to earn her money as an exotic dancer. Diamond begins as a sales associate at a retail shoe boutique, but a visit from veteran strippers changes her outlook on earning cash.
She went on to dance for years earning what she labeled “quick and easy money.” However, the arrival of her little cousin Ebony (Monica Calhoun) exposes the toxicity of The Players Club and the people around her. Diamond confronts the true nature of her work, reconciling with her own trauma to overcome obstacles and prove her dreams are attainable.
Both stories are told from the memories of their main characters. Destiny and Diamond share their experiences hoping to, once and for all, put their past behind them. Recruited into the dancing world by Ronnie (Chrystale Wilson) and Tricks (Adel Givens), Diamond takes their instructions to “use what you got to get what you want” to heart. Destiny found mentorship from Ramona and another stripper, Diamond, played by rapper Cardi B, after a difficult time raking in cash. The pair advise her to “drain the clock not the c**k” while giving a provocative lap-dance lesson.
For the most part, Diamond and Destiny enjoy years of comfortable success. Dancing at night allows Diamond to attend college at her HBCU against her father’s wishes and Destiny earns enough to help her grandmother with household costs. Eventually, Destiny becomes a mother just like Diamond. Both women, through the success of their dancing careers, dealt with familial conflict, failed relationships, overzealous clientele and viewed the effects of abusing drugs and alcohol through other people.
However, the differences in the two stories are just as significant as the similarities. Diamond, a young Black woman dancing in an urban Atlanta nightclub, offers a disparate outlook to Destiny’s work as a young Asian woman dancing in a plush New York City hot spot.
While Destiny had an obsessive client purchase a laptop to assist with her education, Diamond was stalked and almost raped by one of hers. Diamond’s strip club, named The Players Club, looked to Dolla Bill (Bernie Mac) for ownership, a shady businessman indebted to drug dealers. The environment housed criminals, rampant with predatory men looking to take advantage of young women, assisted by the voracious Ronnie and Tricks. Diamond’s journey from gracefully grinding against a pole and strip-club locker room fights resulted in her achieving her original journalistic dreams. Destiny told her story while being interviewed by a journalist after she and the other women involved faced charges, including grand larceny and attempted assault.
Another key difference is in the creation of the films themselves, not just the characters. The Players Club, written and directed by Ice Cube, though done well, still told the story through a male gaze. Conversely, Hustlers is written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, with additional writing credits to Jessica Pressler, the journalist who broke the story. Hustlers answers the call for diversity and inclusion as more and more women-centered stories are being explored with women in front of and behind the camera.
Still revered as a classic, The Players Club was truly ahead of its cinematic time. The Los Angeles Times reports, during the April l998 debut, The Players Club came in at No. 5 with an opening week of $5.6 million despite only being shown on 593 screens. The Players Club helped launch the career of LisaRaye, and Hustlers further cements Jennifer Lopez’s decades on-screen with the biggest opening of her career. Coming in at No. 2, Hustlers garnered $33.2 million ($4.5 million international) at the box office.
Ramona closes Hustlers reflecting on her adventurous journey of highs and lows, stating: “The whole country is a strip club. You got people tossing the money and people doing the dance,” a quote perfectly summarizing the nature of both movies.
Hustlers rebirths the strip club film for a new generation as its predecessor The Players Club did decades back, removing the stigma of strippers and transforming their existence from disposable ass and titties to human beings with multi-dimensional stories and complex character traits. Their narratives, whether detailing crime and peril or plush glam and designer drugs, are worthy of being told to the world.