If the main metric of cinematic excellence is in the art of the moving image, it’s a grotesque injustice that legendary music video director Hype Williams was locked out of feature filmmaking after just one attempt, Belly. Just before venturing into the sleek futurism of his iconic music videos for TLC’s “No Scrubs” & the Janet Jackson/Busta Rhymes collaboration “What’s It Gonna Be?,” Williams sets this over-stylized action thriller just one year ahead of its release date, in the far-off distant future of 1999. Belly‘s intense monochromatic neon lighting vaguely recalls the sci-fi standard set by Ridley Scott in Blade Runner, even though the story it serves is more like a late 90s hip-hop version of GoodFellas. As you might expect from a music video auteur, Williams subscribes to the term “style over substance” as a personal mantra rather than a potential criticism. Belly’s visuals are as gorgeous as its dialogue is disposable. Its performances (mostly from musicians like Nas, DMX, T-Boz, and Method Man) and its overall narrative are so oddly constructed that the film practically qualifies as outsider art. However, 20 years later, there’s no one film that can be directly compared to its merits as a visual achievement. Long after the emptiness of the narrative & dialogue fade in your memory, the film still lingers as a sensory spectacle, a gold standard in the art of the moving image. If Williams had been paired with a stronger screenwriter for a second feature, I have no doubt he’d be hailed as one of the great auteurs of our time. His debut’s lousy 13% approval rating on the Tomatometer is entirely undeserved, though, as its ambition far outweighs its means. Belly’s vision of an MTV-minded, near-future crime dystopia is a powerful narcotic; getting hung up on whether it has something meaningful to say is almost beside the point.
Nas & DMX lead the cast as two tough-as-nails gangsters who’ve become incredibly wealthy though incrementally more dangerous crimes, but dream of leaving the game before it’s too late. There’s a nihilism to their wealth-hoarding that they both recognize as unhealthy (though Nas is by far the first to get there), as indicated by the line, “We’re born to motherfuckin’ die, man. In the meantime, get money.” The dialogue & acting are, to be honest, conspicuously amateur, with near-constant voice-over pulling most of the narrative weight. Thematically, the film can also be downright nasty in its function as a macho power fantasy, with gorgeous women dressed in lacy lingerie patiently waiting in sterile McMansions while their men shoot up nightclubs and coerce teen girls into acts of fellatio. The line between what’s supposed to be glamorous and what’s supposed to be grotesque is a grey area in the film, as everything is framed with a loving, stylized cinematic eye. We do know that theft & murder are A-okay in this world, but selling heroin is a bridge too far (a common theme in these kinds of crime narratives). The casual misogyny & homophobia are on much shakier moral ground, as they’re not directly dealt with in the text. Ultimately, the movie does attempt to pull most of its loose, frayed ends together in a few climactic monologues about the black experience in modern America. Reflections on the prison system, the ravages of addiction & gun violence, kids who’ll never make it past the borders of a housing project, and the spiritual promise of returning to Africa recontextualize the violent excess of the preceding 90min in a near-convincing last-minute turnaround. It’s difficult to know what to do with the information, though, since it’s philosophically at odds with the strange music video glamour of the film’s constant violence & macho posturing, but that moral tension is partly what makes Belly such a fascinating work.
It’s there’s any one clear way that Belly was ahead of its time, it’s in how it fulfills a recent push to pay attention to how we light & film black skin. Titles like Girlhood & Moonlight have earned much-deserved praise for acting as a corrective to a standard way of shooting that favored white complexions on the screen, but even they pale in comparison to the way Belly looks. Cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed, who more recently shot the “Formation” video for Beyoncé’s Lemonade project, creates otherworldly, monochromatic spaces lit in impossibly rich blues, reds, pinks, and browns. The way these hues compliment black complexions is never more evident than when the few white characters (i.e. cops conducting drug raids) invade these spaces to interrupt the reverie. Hype Williams pairs this lighting-intense vision with fashion photography-minded production design and a distinct sense of music video cool to establish an insular world that is only ever disrupted by the arrival of the aforementioned white cops. The way gun violence & misogyny also look cool in this in this otherworldly space is troublesome, especially in the opening, strobe-lit sequence where Nas & DMX shoot up a strip club & return to a gaudy McMansion homestead to “lay low.” That sense of danger & moral unease is distinctly build into the film’s charm, though. It’s also somewhat thematically undone in a climactic series of speeches about the plight of modern black America. There’s something oddly off-balanced about the image Belly is presenting and the (unclear) message it ultimately tries to convey, but the way it consistently carves out a thoroughly black, American space ties the whole thing together as a cohesive piece. It’s one of the many ways the film’s visual achievements outweigh its narrative shortcomings.
After the opening strobe-lit club raid, DMX entertains his guests at his gaudy McMansion by projecting Harmony Korine’s Gummo on the living room wall. Puzzled, Nas repeatedly asks variations on the question “What the fuck is that?” It’s an irreverently funny exchange that doesn’t hold much narrative significance, but does establish context of what’s to follow. Like Korine, Hype Williams is a highly skilled outsider artist whose approach to cinema is much more concerned with visual, stylistic provocation than it is with having something cohesive to say. His music video work alone should establish him as one of the great directors of our time, but I still find it shameful that he hasn’t made a second feature film in the 20 years since Belly. Where Korine has been afforded the space to develop his voice as a feature filmmaker in the public eye, Williams came out near fully-formed with a powerful debut, then returned to directing short-form videos. The critical disappointment with Belly may have been a result of the movie being framed as an MTV-era commercial product instead of a werido art piece like Gummo. Don’t be fooled by the inclusion of Kurt Loder & the stacked cast of big name, late 90s rappers. This is the exact kind of shaggy, off-balance visual piece that should be projected on the living room wall after a long night of partying so that your friends can ask in wonder & disgust, “What the fuck is that?”