The beats of Cardi’s hit song, “Money,” line up to images of Destiny (Constance Wu) and Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) flirting with businessmen and swiping their credit cards. Of course Cardi is a part of Hustlers. As Lorene Scafaria, the movie’s writer and director, said during casting, “How can you write a movie about strippers and not put Cardi B in it?”
In the film, Cardi plays a Bronx-born stripper named Diamond. Considering Cardi herself was once a Bronx-born rapper herself, the casting choice is nothing short of legendary. According to New York Magazine, Scafaria chased Cardi for two years before convincing her to join the movie’s parade of A-Listers, also including Lili Reinhardt, Keke Palmer, and Lizzo.
Unlike Lopez and Wu’s characters, Diamond doesn’t have an exact real-life equivalent. But she’s likely informed by Cardi’s own experiences.
Way before she was a political powerhouse, long before she was a Grammy award-winning rapper, and a bit before she was a reality TV star on Love & Hip Hop, Cardi was a teenager who found financial independence through dancing. At the time she started working at a club, she was barely scraping by at a minimum wage job at the Amish Market and living with her boyfriends’ family.
“When I started dancing I made enough money to get out of the situation I was in and go back to school. ‘Cause I went right back to school,” Cardi says in an Instagram Live video explaining that time in her life. An older stripper advised her to save up money and start a business — more concrete financial advice than any of her college professors had given her. That’s when she realised: “It’s all about money. It’s all about progress.”
Money is a theme in Cardi’s music. And, aside from a sense of vigilante justice, money is the primary motivating factor for the characters in Hustlers. As the story goes, ringleader Samantha Barbash (in Hustlers, J. Lo’s Ramona) recruited younger strippers prey on men at the Hustler Club in New York. The crew — consisting of Barbash, Roselyn Keo (Wu’s character Destiny in Hustlers), Karina Pascucci, and Marsi Rosen — drugged them, maxed out their credit cards, and spent their stolen money in sprees. They relied on the men’s sense of shame about going to a strip club to keep them quiet about the credit card bill.
Cardi might have even more in common with her Hustlers character than stripping. In a three-year-old resurfaced Instagram Live video, Cardi admitted to robbing and stealing from clients, too. "Whether or not they were poor choices at the time, I did what I had to do to survive," Cardi wrote in a response to the video.
Hustlers is located on that same ambiguous fault line between right and wrong, an admirable hustle and an immoral one. It’s a film about women using the tools available to them to get ahead. How do you play a rigged game, they reason, without cheating?
In interviews, the story’s real subjects avoid speaking about their history with concrete definitiveness. At the end of Jessica Pressler’s now-viral story, Keo retracts her candid recollection of the events and adamantly says, “I am telling you everything is fictional.” In two interviews with Jason Mattera on Crime Watch recorded just days apart in 2015, Pasucci wavered between calling herself innocent and calling herself guilty.
Ultimately, whether the women were right to do this isn’t the most interesting question of Hustlers. It’s why they felt they had to — which is exactly what Cardi addresses in her own life.
In Hustlers, Cardi revisits her past from the vantage point of her enormous success. Ironically, Cardi couldn’t actually dance in the movie. She revealed to ET that she was recovering from surgery (specifically, lipo, and breast augmentation) during filming. 'This is my moment to shine, and I can't shine because I can't climb!'" Cardi told ET.
But she’s gotten to flaunt her hard-won skills elsewhere. Watch the music video “Money” for an display of how far Cardi has come, and what she can still do.