Film / News

The lawsuit putting Hustlers’ ethical stance under question

Samantha Barbash, one of the subjects of the New York Magazine article on which the film is based, is suing Jennifer Lopez's production company.

Hustlers, helmed by Hollywood heavyweights Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu, made 157 million dollars worldwide. However, the former was reportedly paid nothing for her starring role as Ramona; which is also how much money Samantha Barbash, the woman on whom Lopez’s character was based, received. Barbash reports that she declined multiple offers to sell her life rights, which she refused on the grounds that; “I have bags that are worth more than what they wanted to pay me.”

Now, Barbash is pressing charges for 40 million dollars in combined compensatory and punitive damages against the film’s producers (including Nuyorican Productions, co-owned by Lopez). The court papers take issue with the use of Barbash’s likeness and claim that; “Defendants made statements and created scenes of and concerning Ms. Barbash in a grossly irresponsible manner” — making explicit reference to the character’s use of drugs and lack of professional loyalty. 

The situation poses some questions about the film’s motivations. Surely if producers cared about doing the story justice, they would have considered paying Barbash fairly for a project that, with the star power of JLo amidst a serious career renaissance, would surely be a hit. Is this really a film that cares about the exotic dancer and stripper community, or is it just looking to cash in on the growing interest in sex workers’ day-to-day lives without actually giving back? 

Firstly, before we consider the problem at hand, it’s worth considering what Hustlers achieved. With a buzz-worthy premiere at Toronto International Film Festival, a major performance at the box office and acclaim from critics, Hustlers was one of the defining cinematic releases of 2019. It was also, on some fronts, a step forward for representation. Making 157 million dollars worldwide, off of a 20 million dollar budget, Hustlers not only serves as proof that female-fronted projects can make bank but makes a case for more diverse casting within releases of this ilk; something that previous projects like Bad Moms or television’s Fleabag could really learn from. Its cast centred women of colour, an important gesture in an industry which continuously sidelines this group through lower pay, limited casting options and tokenistic gestures.

So a win on certain fronts, but how well does Hustlers represent the strippers and exotic dancers at the heart of its narrative? Notably, it’s one of the few releases to focus entirely on the lives of sex workers beyond the objectively terrible Moulin Rouge or the voyeuristic Magic Mike. Compared to what’s come before it, then, Hustlers is definitely an improvement, particularly when it comes to presenting strippers as fully-fleshed-out human beings rather than just props in a wider narrative. Thankfully, however, the Hustlers producers knew they couldn’t let a lack of positive fore-runners allow them to get complacent about setting the bar too low.

Work was done to ensure that the representation of strippers and exotic dancers could bring something positive to the table, rather than being just another sensationalist or inaccurate depiction. Actors who had experience in stripping (Cardi B and Trace Lysette) were featured in the film, albeit in minor roles, and stripper and comedian Jacqueline Frances was hired as a consultant to steer the film in a more sensitive direction. Some of Hustlers was also shot in a real life strip club, NYC’s Show Palace, allowing viewers with no first-hand experience of show bars to more accurately envisage the scene. However, whilst this might have improved the film’s realism, it caused IRL harm to some of the women that worked there. With the club shut down for a week’s filming, some dancers lost up to a week’s wages, reportedly running into the thousands of dollars.

Regardless of how good Hustlers is as a film or how true to life it is, it’s not necessarily a give-in that it will do anything positive for the strippers and exotic dancers it tries to represent. It’s ultimately doubtful that one film can, on its own, curb the discrimination experienced by this group or redress the lack of workplace legislation put in place to protect their livelihood. This is particularly true for Hustlers  due to the fact it doesn’t directly advocate for improved conditions for strippers and exotic dancers, or point to the ongoing labour movement within the community.  This is where the conversation around representation clearly hits a stumbling block: when a marginalised group is actively being denied their rights, more direct forms of intervention are clearly more valuable than depoliticised depictions in the media.

Leeching off the narrative of a marginalised group without directly platforming the issues that might matter to them, it’s hard to ignore the uneven power dynamics at play here. This seems particularly true when we consider that the people who made Hustlers got a lot more out of it materially (try 157 million dollars) than the real-life women it represented.  Say what you will, but Barbash is entitled to that 40 million.

8 January 2020