Hustlers: Recontextualizing the 2008 Recession

If you were to take a minute to look up “movies about the 2008 recession”, the search results will probably seem typical for the subject; documentaries or “based on a true story” fiction films about the Wall Street bigwigs that lead to the financial catastrophe. Few films focus on the most vulnerable and those who suffered the most from it, the lower and middle classes. This recession changed everything in America, and yet few films recognize the lasting damage it did to the common working class.

The Big Short (2015) is probably the most notable based-on-a-true-story fiction films about the crash. Although praised for being well written and produced, the film has virtually no soul, no emotional core, no real care for the working class. This is where Hustlers (2019) comes in. Hustlers has the edge as both a film and a commentary on the 2008 economic recession. Not only does the film take a harsh stance against the Wall Street bankers that directly caused the crash, but moreover the film focuses on some of the most vulnerable people in America: strippers

Sex work is a dangerous practice for many people in the world, and with harsh laws in the United States and cruel stigma against sex workers, the practice can be nearly impossible to survive off of. Stripping, as a practice, is legal in the United States, but as a practice, it still forces workers to suffer from low wages and long workweeks as well as the stigma attached to it. The strippers of Hustlers know this all too well, as we see in the opening when Destiny (Constance Wu) walks away with less than $100 for a night’s work; discovering later that she lives with her grandmother and wants to provide for her makes this even more heartbreaking.

Positioning itself firmly before 2008, we see Wall Street bankers enter the club consistently, to the point that Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) has divided them into three different kinds of customers. By the time Destiny and Ramona become a team, they make hundreds of dollars a night, buy cars, clothes, jewelry; money is saving their lives and making them happy. But when the recession hits, it destroys the stability the women in the club have. No longer are misogynistic but wealthy bankers going into the club every night to have a good time; without them, the strippers have little to no income.

It’s not that the bankers can’t spend their money; they are completely financially secure, they just choose not to spend as excessively as before. This leaves our four main characters economically unstable at their most vulnerable times; Ramona and Destiny each have a child to raise, Mercedes (Keke Palmer) has a boyfriend in prison, and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart) moved to New York with no money or safety net. And this is the scene we as the audience are forced to see, not the bankers that predicted the crash or otherwise benefited from it, but the people who directly suffered from it.

The strippers of Hustlers do steal from the bankers, but at the end of the film, does that matter? Emotionally, the audience supports the strippers; remember, they did nothing to contribute to the recession, they simply were on the receiving end of it. Why shouldn’t they punish the bankers and stockbrokers? The government did nothing to punish the elite of America that caused the crash (something The Big Short makes obvious in one of its better moments), so what’s wrong with them being punished by those they directly hurt? It’s a more complicated question than I make it seem, sure, but when every film about Wall Street or the recession cares so deeply about the opulence of the wealthy, it’s easy to become so supportive of Hustlers.

As a closing thought, I’d really like to talk about my favorite scene in the film and how it encapsulates the tragedy of the recession so perfectly, so beware of spoilers here. When the strippers are finally caught, the film features a needle-drop of Lorde’s “Royals,” and it exists to do more than just place the film firmly in 2013. The song itself is less about criticizing popular music’s obsession with money, but what it’s like to fantasize about money while living in poverty. “And we’ll never be royals / It don’t run in our blood / That kind of luxe just ain’t for us” so the chorus sings as Ramona, Mercedes, Annabelle, and Destiny are arrested one by one, surrounded by police as if the women are the top priority of the law.

As Ramona releases her money into the air, as Destiny is taken away from her child, the real tragedy of the film hits; this life was never meant for these women. The world has deemed that this economic stability, this safety net, does not belong to them. It’s all a fantasy; economic mobility can only truly go down.

This is not a film about how strippers are swindlers or thieves, it’s about how vulnerable they are, about how much money means in this capitalist society, and, most importantly, how this system will always punish the most marginalized.

Each woman steals not to live a life of luxury, but to be able to not just scrape by. Supporting your family and yourself is far more daunting a task for women, people of color, and sex workers, of which three of the four main characters fit into these three groups. They live in a system that was built to hurt them, but for a short time, they lived in a fantasy world, one where they could support themselves financially, where they never worried about when their next paycheck would come or if they could pay the bills. They lived the life of the Wall Street men other films focus on, but that was snatched from them.

In case you’re curious, the men in The Big Short all walk away with millions of dollars for betting that millions of Americans would lose their jobs and homes.

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