Scafaria: Hustlers (2019)
Hustlers is an adaptation of “The Hustlers at Scores,” a 2015 New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler that exposed a scam orchestrated by a group of high-end New York strippers in the wake of the GFC. While Pressler is a character in the film, and is played by Julia Stiles, she’s only an occasional interlocutor, since director Lorene Scafaria spends most of time on the key players in this eccentric crime drama. The two main characters are Ramona, a veteran stripper played by Jennifer Lopez, in possibly her best ever screen performance, and Destiny, a less experienced stripper, played by Constance Wu, who first meets Ramona in the mid 2000s. As the film traces their evolving friendship, it turns into the best period piece I’ve yet seen about the 00s, and the first to capture the turn of the decade from the 00s to the 10s, along with the submerged nostalgia of the 10s for the 00s during this unusual cusp.
To capture that shift, Hustlers is divided into a series of discrete acts, the first of which occurs in the months just before the GFC. During this period, Moves, the club where the women work, is presented as an ancillary to Wall Street. In the early scenes of the film, Ramona becomes a mentor to Destiny, showing her the ropes, providing her with one pithy aphorism after another, and instructing her in the three distinct tiers of Wall Street clients. Rather than Moves being an escape from Wall Street, Ramona tells Constance, it’s actually the purest expression of Wall Street, and fuelled by the same pleasure – the pleasure, for clients of negotiating a demeaning exchange, and knowing they have come away with the better deal. Since Moves is presented as an adjunct to Wall Street, stripping is quickly divested of any exotic sheen, and instead presented, quite frankly, as a form of work. In one memorable early scene, the strippers comment, comically, on the clients’ perception that all they do is have sex – most of them just want to curl up on the couch on their one night off.
Normally, this equation of stripping with work produces quite a drab vision for stripping. After all, the possibilities for upward mobility are pretty limited in the world of stripping and sex work more generally. However, the strippers at Moves are in a unique position, since their proximity to Wall Street – their necessity for Wall Street – allows them to ride the mid-00s financial bubble in a particularly emphatic way. Precisely because they are so frank about the work of stripping, Ramona and Constance quickly cultivate a loyal clientele that allows them to embody the boom of the mid 00s. This was the last period when music video was the dominant force in shaping American fantasy – especially fantasies of wealth – since the emergence of YouTube in the late 00s would surpass MTV and other music video stations as the main purveyor of kinetic, hyperactive, up-to-the-minute mediation. Much of this first part of the film therefore plays like Goodfellas inflected through music video – and RnB music video in particular, which tended to be the most flamboyant and inventive in exploring and expanding upon the possibilities of this music video at this moment in history.
As a result, the opening act of Hustlers exhibits a music video aesthetic that immediately – viscerally – took me back to the mid 00s. When Destiny goes to buy her first car, Ramona sits them both in the best model in the showroom, where they dance in the front seat while “It’s Britney, bitch” blasts out of the loudspeakers. Whenever Destiny and Ramona are servicing clients, they get their moves from the swagger of RnB music video – and become better at crafting music video tableaux as the months proceed. Finally, all the fantasies of the pre-GFC era culminate with Usher visiting Moves, and walking right up to the stage, where all the women get up to perform for him. With Cardi B and Lizzo also in the cast, this writhing mass of bodies could be auditioning for Usher’s show, or performing a music video in his honour, bringing the pre-GFC era to a close with one last music video phantasmagoria.
There’s a powerful desperation to these scenes, as Destiny and Ramona ride the last wave of the pre-GFC era, which is presented here as the tail end of the long 1990s. Typically, the long 1990s has been seen to begin with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and end with the attack on the World Trade Centre, but Scafaria suggests that a 90s structure of feeling continued – and intensified – until the GFC produced a new era of austerity. In Hustlers, that austerity quickly ruptures this music video aesthetic, and replaces it with a new gritty realism, as Destiny moves to Arizona, where she has to downsize, retrain and try to land a hospitality job with zero legitimate experience. In the meantime, Moves has also been downsized – by the time Destiny returns in the early 10s, and meets up with Ramona once again, it has been transformed from a high-end strip club to a seedy sex club, and has replaced all of the original strippers with prostitutes that appear to have been outsourced from the Russian Mafia. This new generation of sex workers are all paid minimum wage, and seem light years away from the Scorsese-like montages of rampant upward mobility that drive the first act.
In fact, Hustlers often seems to periodise the 00s in the same way that Goodfellas periodises the 80s. As with the 80s, the 00s are presented as a boom-and-bust decade, since both decades start with a period of decadent, orgiastic abandon that quickly settles into a sourer austerity. The collective sensuality of the original Moves strippers is not unlike the libidinal collectivity that was partly dismantled by the AIDS crisis, as everyone in the film chases the tail-end of the recession, seeking out the last remaining pockets of the financial and affective capital that seemed endless in the mid 00s. This produces one of the first films I’ve seen that’s genuinely nostalgia for the 00s as a discrete period. In part, it’s nostalgia for the income and mobility of the pre-GFC period, but it’s also a broader nostalgia for the aesthetics of music video – its sense that the troupe, and collective experience, could be financially and affective remunerative in the long term. By contrast, the 10s play as a period of abated collective sensuality – a more individualistic and egocentric era, embodied by the more pronounced role that Stiles, and Pressler, play during this second act of the narrative.
This is, however, only the second act, since Hustlers is keen to distance itself from the self-pitying recession dramas that circulated in the immediate wake of the GFC. For the most part, these dramas were about wealthy white men whose entitlement had been denaturalized by financial crisis, whereas Scafaria’s film is more interested in the way in which women of colour were able to latch onto the momentum of a financial boom that was predominantly driven by white male agency and interests. RnB music video often seems to allegorise this process, drawing upon the bodily regulations of a capitalist regime that was white and male by definition, but then distorting or twisting those regulations so that they allow women of color to articulate themselves despite a system structured around their invisibility. In that sense, mid 00s music video, as it is presented here, forms a late expression of Afrofuturism, and the Afrofuturist project of challenging the very idea of futurity itself, as conceived of by white capitalism, rather trying to integrate into that future.
While Hustlers is not entirely populated by black women, or even women of colour, its focus on music video as a form of future negotiation is in this Afrofuturist tradition, and culminates with Ramona and Destiny’s scheme for recapitulating the 00s in the 10s. With the club so decimated, they decide to compensate by “going fishing,” drugging targeted wealthy clients with a cocktail of ketamine and MDMA. The MDMA makes the client ecstatic, whereas the MDMA erases their memory, allowing the women to effectively fleece the same men over and over again, progressively emptying their bank accounts without them being able to do anything about it. The opacity of the market, which was previously the client’s biggest source of mystique, is now turned against the client, as one Wall Street banker after another finds their stocks running dry without being able to fully glimpse the broad spectrum of financial contingencies and manipulations that have led to this situation.
Over time, Ramona and Destiny bring more women into their scheme, outsourcing each part of the process, and recruiting a new stripper for each client, until they are basically running their own corporation, playing the role of CEO and CFO respectively. At first, Moves is just the venue for their scheme, but it eventually becomes entirely dependent on their scheme, as they restore their clients’ memories of the pre-GFC era, but only by orchestrating sustained periods of memory loss. In the process, memory loss becomes the main business of the club – erasing the memories of clients so thoroughly that it might as well be the 00s, at least for the strippers, as the 10s become a kind of willful forgetting that the 00s ever ended, or that the GFC ever disrupted the hedonism of the end of the long 90s.
The early 10s are therefore largely displaced here, into the film’s fascination with the continuities and discontinuities between the mid 00s and the mid 00s, which is where the final part of the screenplay ends up, once Ramona and Destiny are apprehended by the authorites. This semi-continutiy is partly figured through rnb lineages, as Scafaria draws a thread between the early 90s rnb style of J-Lo and Usher, and the late 10s rnb style of Cardi B and Lizzo, while displacing the connective tissue of the late 00s and early 10s. It’s also figured through a kind of intensified 90s style at the height of the ketamine/MDMA scheme, since the logic of the film dictates that this recapitulation of the pre-GFC era must also be a recapitulation and intensification of the long 90s that the pre-GFC era itself intensifed. At the very height of the scheme, then, the strippers lapse into an apotheosis of 90s feel-good affect, in the form of a Christmas party that could be straight out of a classic 90s movie, so airbrushed and rigorous is its exclusion of anything that could disrupt the good time vibes.
The broadest sweep of Hustlers is thus to suggest that the GFC was the end of a feel-good affect that was synonymous with the 90s, and that the 10s was partly preoccupied with trying to resurrect this feel-good affect in increasingly contorted ways. The tragedy, or fantasy, of the film is that the long 90s had only just got over the recession of the 80s when the GFC finally brought the 00s into being, meaning that the spectre of the early 80s also haunts the earlier stages of the film as a vision of collective and communal sensuality that has still not yet been ratified, no matter how much the post-GFC era tried to invoke it vicariously through simulacra of the pre-GFC era. This abrupt shift from the late 90s – or even late 80s – to the early 10s means that the 00s is ultimately displaced as a point of reference, with all the film’s nostalgia for the pre-GFC period finally playing as an attempt to periodise this mercurial era, less conducive to “decadisation” than any other in recent history. As a result, Hustlers often seems to be trying to find a new vocabulary to periodise lived cultural time in a millennial era that doesn’t work when divided into decades, partly because decadisation was often a way of articulating the approach of the millennium itself.
The final act of Hustlers therefore segues into 2015 in quite a banal and bathetic way, retaining the 00s as a lost object of fantasy and memory. As Destiny gets a job as a pharma rep, the film’s style grows drabber, seguing into a Netflix documentary register that is light years away from the stylised music video aesthetic of the opening act. During these final scenes, Pressler, and Stiles, come to the fore, until they dominate the way in which the scenes unfold. In the early parts of Hustlers, Pressler feels very remote from the historical events that she is exposing, but the style of the film eventually catches up with her, and becomes synonymous with the journalistic address of her article for New York magazine. As the palette of the film morphs into the present, everything is subsumed into a muted naturalism, and Scafaria shaves off the cinematic sheen of the film until there is nothing left but the paparazzi shots of Ramona and Destiny on their way to court appearances – images so denuded that they could be mistaken for photographs of the “real” Ramona and Destiny.
Yet the beauty of Hustlers is that it never entirely gives into this self-important naturalism, nor to the critical distance of Pressler’s article. Instead, the final images in the film remain entranced by this nostalgic fantasy of the pre-GFC era, starting with an additional scene from the feel-good Christmas party that occurs at the height of the strippers’ scheme. During this final flashback, we see Destiny, Ramona and two other strippers doing a rendition of a Janet Jackson music video, collapsing the pre-GFC era as apex of the long 80s into a music video fandom that is totally incompatible with the present as the film understands it. From there, Scafaria returns to the spectacle of Usher entering Moves, except that this time Usher is now fully integrated into the music clip that the strippers orchestrate in his honour. Even after being apprehended and charged, Destiny and Ramona are still indebted to the pre-GFC era as a time when music video was capable of remaking and reshaping culture as never before or since – and by leaving us, finally, poised at that moment, Hustlers both describes and enacts the most beautiful 00s period piece I’ve seen.
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