In this Black American classic, we follow the trials and tribulations of Diana Armstrong (LisaRaye), a single mom and journalism student, as she takes us through a first-person narrative of her time as a stripper in the notorious Players Club.
When Diana got pregnant with her son, tensions with her parents caused her to move out and she was barely making ends meet as a sales associate at a shoe store when she meets Tricks (Adele Givens) and Ronnie (Chrystale Wilson) who work at the club and convince Diana to use what she has to get what she wants. The lecherous owner, Dolla Bill (Bernie Mac) hires her immediately and thus begins the career of “Diamond”.
Diana’s cousin, Ebony (Monica Calhoun), comes to her with various undisclosed issues and, despite Diana’s insistence that she stay away because she doesn’t have the fortitude to handle that lifestyle, Ebony soon starts working at the club as well. As Diana predicted, all of Ebony’s pre-existing problems are exacerbated by the club environment and she spirals into alcoholism.
Although this film is officially labeled as a comedy-drama, the only comedy therein is in the form of relief from the powerful and sometimes even traumatic subject matter. Diana is constantly judged by everyone in her life, from her parents to her boyfriend, about being a dancer at the club, but no one has a word to say about her son’s deadbeat father, nor is anyone helping her support her child and pay for school. Furthermore, while she is treated as the lowest person for getting paid to do what millions of women do for free for an audience of one, the men who go to the club to see her and the other dancers and legitimize their work get the “Men will be men” pass. The only person in the entire film who treats Diana with dignity and respect, with no agenda or motivation of attraction, is one of her college professors, who believes in her intellect and drive wholeheartedly, and views her as a whole person, not just her profession. The other men, in and out of the club, treat her like an object.
The men at the club aren’t the only people Diana has to look out for either, since Ronnie is a sexual predator who routinely financially exploits and violates the other girls at the club. She and Tricks convince Ebony to do more and more private parties outside of the club for groups of men. Diana again tries to warn Ebony, to stop doing house parties and to stay away from Tricks and Ronnie (who, on top of using Ebony, feed her alcoholism).
After a frightening incident with a club patron turned stalker, Diana discovers a betrayal from Ebony, and kicks her out, inadvertently pushing her into Ronnie’s clutches. Desperate for money with her self-esteem at an all-time low, Ebony agrees to do a private bachelor party for Ronnie’s brother, Junior (Samuel Monroe Jr.), despite her reservations, with the understanding that other dancers would be there. When Ebony realizes she’s alone in a room full of men with no respect for her or her boundaries and that Ronnie’s lied to her, she tries to call Diana but quickly realizes that no one is coming to her rescue.
Junior’s friends Reggie and Clyde, knowing that he has a history of violence and sexual assault, decide to get back at Ebony for a previous encounter and, like most men who feel entitled to a woman but don’t get what they feel is owed them, lie about having slept with her, about her being sexually promiscuous and willing to sleep with anyone. Junior then feels entitled himself to take what he wants, Ebony’s autonomy be damned. As Ebony is sexually assaulted, we are reminded again that this movie is not a comedy. There is nothing funny about rape, and even Reggie and Clyde (Ice Cube and Alex Thomas), though disgusted enough to leave the hotel, don’t bother to help the woman whom they’ve thrown to the wolves. When Diana decides to check on Ebony and finds her battered and bruised, she is reminded of the fact that Ebony is family and has an iconic confrontation with Ronnie.
While the experience pushes Ebony to retire her stripped heels, and her character is often used as a cautionary tale against being an exotic dancer, Ebony’s true problems were the demons she was running from when she came to Diana on the first place, issues that were only compounded by an environment where she sought friends but only found predators and opportunists. Diana had not just goals, to help her get through the elements of her job that she disliked, but also a strong sense of self and street smarts that ultimately keep her safe.
The Players Club is the ultimate inadvertently feminist film that highlights some of the struggles of womanhood: single motherhood, dealing with toxic masculinity and male entitlement, commodifying of one’s own beauty for survival, rape culture, etc. The film examines various intersections of Blackness, feminism, and sex work in respectively overt, nuanced, and layered ways. It examines the various motivations behind sex work, the hypocrisy of those who shame sex workers, and how sex work can be a form of autonomy and empowerment, not just escape, for many. In the end, Diana moves on to her dream career, in television journalism, and both she and Ebony come out of the club wiser and, if viewed from the lens of intersectionality, so does the audience.
I give this one 4.5 stars.