How “Hustlers” Went from Street to Screen
J.Lo, Constance Wu, Lizzo and Cardi B offer a body-rocking, non-fictional account of the stock market crash.
In the wake of the 2000 Grammy Awards, four little keywords—“Jennifer Lopez Green Dress”—dramatically spiked on Google, prompting a room of engineers to launch a new tool catering to an increasingly thirsty user base. Almost 20 years later, in March, Lopez shared a photo that fulfilled her station as the body behind Google Images—a BTS image from the upcoming Hustlers. Based on a New York article by Jessica Pressler, scribe behind the viral exposé of Soho grifter Anna Delvey, and with a cast that also includes Lizzo, Cardi B and Constance Wu, the film is genetically disposed to flood newsfeeds.
While the photo Lopez shared, showing the now- 50-year-old in a pink micro-bikini and rocking oversized, somewhat dated shades, was a forever-mood befitting the star’s bodacious longevity, it offered little in the way of context. Here to elaborate is Lorene Scafaria, who directed and adapted the screenplay for Hustlers. Blending Showgirls and Wolf of Wall Street, Scafaria’s film follows a troupe of exotic dancers who con their monied clientele out of tens of thousands of dollars—stylishly revealing how, just like its high-powered benefactors, sex work suffered under the economic changes of the mid-aughts. “The financial crisis was a turning point for [the industry],” says Scafaria. “Money changed, [as did] what was expected [in exchange for] the money, and so these girls really had to change their game [by any means necessary].”
In addition to the aforementioned starpower, Hustlers features Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, and Trace Lysette (Lysette, like Cardi, is a former real-life stripteuse). “It was an embarrassment of riches,” says Scafaria. “I chased Cardi B and Lizzo for a year [or more]. Keke, forget it; I’m a fan of her entire being. I [got] incredibly lucky.”
Further lending credence to the film is its source material, which ran with the headline “The Hustlers at Scores” in 2015. As explosive nonfiction brought to life, the film delivers a refreshingly humane, semi-aspirational portrait of New York’s exotic dancing ring—counterweighed with society’s and Hollywood’s typically caricatured visions of the subject matter. Though an overall-loose adaptation of the New York piece, Scafaria’s film retraces some of Pressler’s reporting. “I’d always thought of [sex work] as a very honest profession, but I certainly didn’t know the ins and outs before diving in. [Luckily] the [women] would always open their doors,” she says. “They were very receptive, and often grateful that someone was interested in telling their stories.”
Scafaria’s inquests lent her not only an expanded POV, but a cast made even richer by its verisimilitude—comprised of both A-list icons and real-life hustlers: “A lot of the girls that appear in the movie are [actual] strippers or sex workers; many [of those we met] do it in order to pursue their other passions,” Sacafaria says. “One [dancer] we met was also a musician—I think the happiest I’ve ever [encountered]—who goes and works at the club for a couple months, and saves enough money to go on tour; like any other industry, you have people who are thriving and people who are just surviving.” And while real-world sex work may seldom resemble the celebrity fantasia of Hustlers, Scafaria’s methods allow the film to take to pleasure in exposing its mundane and absurd aspects: “[I learned that] the male customers actually say ‘please’ a lot!” she reports.
Indeed, no industry is without its ups and downs. Lopez’s sizzling Instagram tease, Scafaria reveals, belies some unideal conditions. “Oh, the pink bikini!” Scafaria laughs. “That was a cold day on a rooftop pool. It was torturous for everyone, but I promised it would be worth it.”
Whether the hustlers of Hustlers are guilty of recession-era ingenuity or societal ill, it is a known fact—as attested to by J.Lo’s six-pack-baring body shot—that nothing is more American than a little extra hustle.