author – activist – faculty – mom
Richard Brody, the New Yorker’s film critic, has proven himself utterly unqualified to review “Hustlers.” The film is is based on a true crime article, about a group of exotic dancers who run a scam to rip off some of their wealthiest clients. The first voice heard in the film is that of vocalist Janet Jackson, in a few spoken lines at the beginning of her song “Control,” off the Grammy-winning album of the same title from 1986. The song is playing in the scene, which takes place in a strip club. But film critic Brody mistakenly attributes the Janet Jackson line to a character in the film. Brody writes, “It’s ‘a story about control,’ Dorothy says, in a brief opening voice-over.” He mistakenly believes that the line was spoken by actress Constance Wu and is part of the script written by writer/director Lorene Scafaria.
It wasn’t. The fact that Brody can’t distinguish between the voices of Wu and Jackson points to larger problems. If he doesn’t recognize a song from a groundbreaking R&B album that went quintuple platinum, then he clearly lacks the cultural competence necessary to review popular culture in general, let alone pop culture about women of color. If Brody were a millennial, he might get a pass for not knowing a song from before he was born. But Brody doesn’t qualify for that pass. Born in 1948, he studied comparative literature at Princeton, is best known for writing about 1960s New Wave Cinema in France, and received accolades for popularizing French film in the US.
Are white men really presumed to be that universal? In a review of one of Godard’s early films that appears to distort both women and sex work, Brody gives the following definition: “prostitution…doing for money what is properly done for love.” So he is clearly ready to mansplain to women about what is proper, and is utterly tone deaf about the realities of our lives.
Brody may or may not be responsible for the hostile headline of his “Hustlers” review, which calls the film “a Lurid Crime Story with No Edge.” But I will take him to task for the content. He says, “the movie stays on the surface, to yield, for the most part, a simplistic, unexplored celebration of characters who…fit the story’s amiable tone.” In reality, it is Brody’s lack of context and connection with the lives of women of color that do not allow him to decode any of the multiple layers of subtext that make Hustlers such a rich and phenomenal film. Essentially, without understanding us, our lives, or our culture, he misses all the film’s nuances. And I cannot imagine describing the tone of “Hustlers” as amiable. Unless he’s committed to the traditional narratives of sex workers where they are punished with violence, prison, and death.
Ultimately, Brody seems befuddled by the fact that the film does not center men, complaining that the film cuts short the interactions of the women with clients: “A montage shows one man entering a luxury car and another exiting it from the other side, with no detail of what’s happened inside. In another illustrative montage, [the women chat] men up with opening lines that, unfortunately, mark the end of each scene rather than the beginning.” He also expresses disappointment that the story doesn’t explore the relationship between Ramona and Chuck, who pays for her apartment although they don’t have a sexual relationship. According to Brody, “This in itself is an amazing story; the relationship between Ramona and Chuck…could be a movie in itself. Instead, their dynamic is never seen at all.” But this is a movie about women and their lives and connections with each other. Which clearly fails to hold Brody’s attention, and he is instead curious about their relationships with wealthy men. Those men are likely older and white. Like Brody. But he can’t seem to grasp that this movie is not about him.
He fails again with the following: “The crucial bond of the two women…is…[t]he festivity of shopping…” Wow, did he completely miss the Christmas scene, where the single mom hustlers brought together three generations of women into an extended family? He can only imagine women as bonding through shopping? Really?
Finally, he has the nerve to say “the relationship between Dorothy and Ramona—the one on which the narrative depends—remains unexplored.” Unexplored? Was there supposed to be a scene of them going to therapy together? These two women’s relationship is the centerpiece of the film, the emotional core of both women’s joy and grief. As other critics have pointed out, it literally drives the narrative, but somehow he can’t tell.
I’ve been pleased to see that most of the reviewers have loved Hustlers, are even talking about it in the Oscar conversation, especially JLo. I will soon be reviewing for a media outlet, focusing on the sex work politics and comparisons with my own sex worker heist series of novels, “Justice Hustlers.”
It’s hard to believe that in 2019 the New Yorker would have someone so culturally incompetent review this film. Brody might have had some relevant things to say about 1960s French New Wave film back in the day. But like Janet Jackson said on that same album, “What have you done for me lately?”