Spoilers for Hustlers below.
Hustlers, based on the true story of a group of strippers who shook down hundreds of Wall Street bros for access to their bank accounts, is a lot of things all at once: It’s a dark, late-capitalist fable; an examination of gender politics and self-worth in the early aughts; a pitch-black comedy; a study in moral relativism and latent misogyny; a paean to misunderstood sex workers; a long-overdue Jennifer Lopez showcase. But above all else, it’s a painstakingly detailed historical-period drama.
In the first half of the film, director Lorene Scafaria carefully recreates the year 2008, that last vestige of cartoonish American excess, to stunning and extremely embarrassing results. For at least 45 straight minutes, I cringed in horrified recognition. Lopez, as the scheming stripper-in-charge, Ramona, struts down the street in a Juicy suit and shiny brown lip gloss. Constance Wu, as Ramona’s mentee, Destiny, hangs out at home in a bra with clear straps, navy platform flip-flops, a denim miniskirt, and a pink tube top that reads “Fuck it up, buttercup.” Tiny vests are worn over ripped T-shirts; feather earrings complement shredded, low-cut jeans.
But the most incredible 2008 simulacrum happens about halfway through the movie. Ramona, Destiny, and their fellow strippers are at the club, getting ready backstage, when suddenly, time slows down. Lizzo, breathless, races into the dressing room, nipple tape shimmering beneath her purple mesh dress, and begins to scream. Every dancer — Cardi B, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Jacq the Stripper, Trace Lysette — halts mid-grooming and rushes the stage, grinding up on each other, ecstatic. “Love in This Club” begins to blare from the speakers. Dollar bills float through the air. Lasers shoot from the ceiling. Confetti pours from the rafters. The entire club moves in unison, as if under an extremely sensual spell. Why?
Because, as Lizzo puts it, “Motherfucking Usher is here. Usher, bitch!”
If you paid any attention to celebrity gossip in the early aughts, you know that Usher, quite proudly, spent his fair share of time in the strip club. A 2008 New York Post article, entitled “Confessions of an Ex-Scores Stripper,” details what his visits were like: “Usher would wander in with a huge entourage, and you’d start to feel like you were in some insane mobster movie, and all the bad things about the place would feel glamorous and cool, rather than sordid and seedy … All the girls lined up in one long row to dance for Usher.” Usher has even sung about his love for strippers — his 2014 hit “I Don’t Mind” is a pseudo-woke ode to his stripper lover, who “works a pole” but “that don’t make [her] a ho.”
By bringing the actual Usher into a faithfully recreated version of 2008, Hustlers pulls a fantastic, meta surprise. Watching it all unfold, the delight comes in waves: It’s Usher! In a movie! Playing himself! In the year 2008! At a strip club! Where he used to go all the time in 2008! But the absolute best moment happens a few minutes into the scene: Lopez’s Ramona, resplendent and glowing, squats down on the stage, leaning toward a visibly horny Usher, who’s just stuffed dollar bills into her G-string and joyfully slapped her ass. Ramona grins slyly into his face. “What’s your name?” she asks playfully. Usher flashes those famous snow-white teeth and looks directly into Lopez’s eyes. “Ursher, baby,” he says.
Again, there are layers to this shit. Lopez, who was herself a major musical icon in 2008, is pretending to be a no-name stripper while openly flirting with her actual friend and musical equal, Usher, who’s cheekily nodding to his own past while playing himself from 11 years ago. Watching the scene, I was enchanted and disoriented, like I had entered a VR simulation of my college iTunes playlists. I needed to know: How the hell did Hustlers pull this all off?
Scafaria tells me that the cameo was written into the script all the way back in 2016, before the film went into development. Back then, she doubted she’d ever be able to get Usher. “It’s one of those things when you write something in and then you go, ‘Yeah, okay, but when we get there, who’s it actually going to be?’” Then the team cast Lopez, producer Jessica Elbaum explains, and all of their possibilities widened. “People like Jennifer and [record executive] Benny Medina helped a lot with connecting,” Scafaria says of the casting, but ultimately, it was up to her to convince Usher to traipse back into the club.
“It was, at first, assuring him that what the scene represents is a celebration. The glory days,” she says. “But I remember the hardest part was convincing him that his hair was going to be okay.” Sure, Usher’s face has remained eerily steady over the years, but he’s since grown out his close-cut aughts hair. The solution: put a hat on him. “The day I was sending Usher pictures of himself in hats was a very funny day,” says Scafaria. “I was just Googling ‘Usher in hats’ and telling him, ‘I swear we could do this part with that hat.’”
Ultimately, Usher agreed to a hat, as long as he could pair it with his own wardrobe from 2008: a necklace, jacket, and sunglasses. “It was rad,” says Scafaria. As for his iconic line? The writer-director says it was totally improvised. “I told Usher, ‘If you want to say something, let’s talk about it.’ Usher came up to me after we did one take, and he goes, ‘I’ve thought about what I wanted to say. I wanted her to ask my name, and I’m going to say ‘Usher, baby.’” Scafaria was totally delighted. “I was like, ‘Hell yeah!’”
The cameo was shot in a single day in the summer of 2019 at Show Palace in Queens, during the last week of Hustlers’ filming. “We had Usher, Lizzo, and Cardi all filming the same day,” says producer Jessica Elbaum. “That was insane. Cameos are challenging schedule-wise, but I’ve never done it with three people in one day.” The most difficult part was figuring out how to film the mega-cameo in the middle of New York with hundreds of extras — and to keep it all a secret until release. Before Scafaria began shooting, producer Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas stood up to plead with the background actors. “I said, ‘Guys, listen, we’re making a movie,’” she recalls. “‘You’re a part of our movie, so you can’t post anything … nobody can know we’re here.’”
At the time, Goldsmith-Thomas says she was distracted by the sorts of producer worries that keep you up at night — especially when you’ve only got 29 days to shoot a massive feature film: “I didn’t know how Lorene was going to block it. I had just been consumed with, ‘Did everybody get off the plane? Did we have time to fit the costumes? Oh my God, are we going to be late?’” But once “Love in This Club” began playing on set, she says, “everyone was transported.” “Oh my god, there’s Usher, and he’s picking Jennifer up, and he’s carrying her, and Constance is all over Lizzo,” she recalls thinking. “I’ve never had that experience on a set. I looked at Jessica and I said, ‘Jesus, this is good.’ I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.”
“The fact that it was really him was remarkable,” confirms Scafaria. “The girls were flipping out. I think he was a crush for everybody at some point in their lives.”
Wu confirmed as much: “The second he smiles, everybody just melts.” In fact, Jacq the Stripper, a comedian and dancer who has a role in the film but also acted as an on-set “comfort consultant” for the cast, remembers having to remind the actresses to play it cool. “I was like, ‘Don’t be too thirsty, just ’cause Usher just walked in. Strippers do not give them everything. You have to be like, ‘He ain’t shit,’ because that’s what keeps them wanting more.”
For Palmer, who auditioned for the 2005 Usher rom-com In the Mix when she was 10 years old, the experience was particularly surreal. “He was like, ‘Man, the last time I seen you, you was a kid.’ I said, ‘Yeah … a lot has changed since then,’” Palmer says. “It was really funny — like, ‘Now I’m stripping for you, Usher?’ He and I were laughing about that.”
In the end, the extras must have agreed to play along with Goldsmith-Thomas’s decrees, because the producer says not a single person leaked the surprise. “They all took such pride in it, and they were our partners. They knew how hard it was to do it,” she says. Scafaria was moved to tears by the result: “It just felt like a Renaissance painting or something. It was so beautiful.”
But it’s possible that nobody found the whole thing more magical than Usher himself. “I think he had a good time,” says Scafaria, laughing. “I had a text the next day that said, ‘I hope you had as much fun as I did.’”
More on 'Hustlers'
- A Former Stripper’s Thoughts on Hustlers
- Stalking Janet Jackson, and Other Stories Behind the Hustlers Soundtrack
- In Hustlers, Jennifer Lopez Proves the Power of the Movie Star