Belly is one of the most important movies in the history of Black cinema.
Yeah, I said it, and I’m not afraid of any of y’all. This movie is hotly debated among Black people. “It looks like a music video.” “It’s dark. No, not the mood, the lighting.” “It makes no sense.” “What is that movie even supposed to be about?” “That’s what happens when you give rappers acting jobs.” “That’s why they never should’ve given these people money.”
Is the movie a cinematic masterpiece? In a word, no. But it’s valuable because it captured so much of the ethos of the time it came out, in 1998. For one thing, it showed things as they were in people’s heads, and reflected how they interacted with the culture. Kids today won’t understand, but people actually used to sit around the TV watching hours and hours of music videos. You’d wait for a music video you really loved to come on, and you’d discover entirely new music that way. Music videos had reached the level of short feature films. The budgets had grown huge and production values had gone through the roof. You’d see helicopters, speedboats, exotic locations, explosions, quality computer generated images, and crazy cameo appearances. Music videos started to get to be longer than the actual songs. At R. Kelly’s peak, his “Down Low” video series was epic. They singlehandedly reenergized Ron Isley’s career as Mr. Big. R. Kelly kept on banging Mr. Big’s women, until finally Mr. Big had him beat down and dropped off to die in the desert. For a while, there was talk of an R. Kelly/Mr. Big movie, WHICH I WOULD STILL GLADLY PAY MONEY TO SEE. During that time, Hype Williams was one of the most prolific and sought after video directors. So it was inevitable that he would one day make a feature length film, and when he did, its opening sequence would look like this. I’m sorry I can’t embed it, but you need to click on that link. I can say this without hyperbole: I’m going to let you finish, but Hype Williams created one of the greatest opening film sequences of all time. Of course it looks like a music video. It’s the point. The music videoness of it makes the scene matter as much as it does. And that sequence breathed new life into Soul II Soul’s “Back To Life.” I can’t even hear that song without thinking about a slow motion robbery happening under ultraviolet lights.
Another thing about this movie is that most of the actors are not people that you would consider great actors, but they all were perfect for this film. Everybody played their role. Think about it: Nas, DMX, T-Boz, Method Man were playing characters with names like Sincere, Bunz, and Father Sha. It’s characters playing characters. This film was poorly received by critics, but forget them. They do not know what they are talking about in this situation, but you can’t blame them. This movie requires a shared theory of mind to fully comprehend—it’s really a product of the environment and time and culture. More on that in a minute.
An underrated part of the movie: Taral Hicks as Keisha. Since the eighties, there had been a very specific type of beauty, a very specific type of woman who had been shown in music videos. And Taral was none of that. She was just 22 or when she made this movie, but she somehow just killed it. For one thing, Taral is just a natural beauty. You could see it in A Bronx Tale. But she was just everything in this movie. She isn’t just beautiful here, she’s attractive on a visceral level. Her womanness is powerful. And she was a ride or die chick. Of course, her portrayal is very Hype Williams, Hip Hop Video Director: she’s classy, yet hood; naturally beautiful, but sexy; she’s smart, but approachable; she’s strong and feminine. She holds it down. Even the physicality she brings to the screen connotes strength and beauty at the same time. You really don’t see too many woman glistening with sweat on film the way you see Taral do in this movie. She seems almost unattainable, and yet: she’s a Keisha. There’s an around-the-way quality about her. She’s a prototype that is rarely seen in nature but frequently pined for on hip hop albums of the 90s. But if you listen to hip hop music, she’s an amalgam of what every intelligent thug is looking for. It’s as though Hype listened to “How’s It Going Down,” “Renee,” “I Need Love,” “Helluva,” “Iesha,” “Me and My Girlfriend (the Tupac verion, not the abomination later made by Jay-Z—and I like Jay),” and a bunch of other songs and cast and wrote for a combination of the best features in each song. Keisha is the hip hop version of Proverbs 31. Especially given the time this movie came out, you can be sure of one thing: the fact that Taral is a darker-skinned woman and made darker by the way the film is shot is no accident at all. Her blackness is celebrated. She’s also taller than most people in the film—that too, is celebrated. In this way, Keisha can be viewed as a proto Michelle Obama. Her strength and physicality don’t run counter to her femininity, her beauty is not something that exists despite her blackness—Hype Williams portrays her strength, physical presence, and blackness as deeply integral to Keisha’s desirability.
I don’t know if Hype thought this would be his only movie ever, because it feels like he felt like he had to say it all in this one film. He seemed like he was dealing with every issue a thoughtful black guy in his late twenties or early thirties would have been concerned about in the late 90s. He dealt with the drug trade, with the violence that comes from that, with the migration of people and drugs from northern metropolises to more rural areas (from New York to Omaha). He dealt with the stereotypes that New Yorkers have about anybody who isn’t from the Northeast—Big Head Rico in Omaha with the perm wasn’t as slow as they thought. He dealt with ego, jealousy, crabs in a barrel, religion, the prison system, black on black crime, the movement of harder drugs into the inner cities, racism, black conceptions of beauty….and government conspiracies to assassinate community leaders. And the whole thing looked like a music video.
One of the more compelling moments: Hype Williams demonstrates awareness of the impact that older generations have on the younger, and the impact hip hop could have on its young fans when he films a scene featuring DMX (Bunz, but I wanna call him DMX) instigating a fight between two young drug dealing proteges. Bunz puts a gun on the table in a restaurant. At this point, DMX really ain’t ish anymore. He’s fallen off, he’s on the run, his glory days are over—but these young guns don’t realize that. They still look up to him. And neither of them wants to look like a punk in Bunz’s eyes. One kid grabs the gun and shoots the other kid, his best friend, just to save face. That’s a metaphor, and it’s more powerful when we see the dead body slumped over the table, the police on their way, and Bunz too drunk and high to even move or try to escape. Three lives ruined. As a character in DBAMISSWDYJITH might say, MESSAGE! How many people get killed…and it’s over “some bull****?” How many times is it someone that they considered a friend? Just from a casual watching of First 48, you can see a lot of guys who killed people and they don’t even really know the real reason why. They’re at just as much a loss as everybody else. How many murders are described as “senseless?” Most of them, it seems. If you watch Law and Order or even old school Matlock, everybody who kills anybody has a logical reason for it. In real life, it doesn’t work that way. And Hype showed us one of those senseless killings as it was building up to happen.
Despite the arrogance and ignorance we see from rappers today, lots of rappers back in the day operated on a higher level of intellectual and historical consciousness. They searched for meaning. Most of them were first generation successes in their families. So many came from the projects, the hood, or other dangerous or impoverished situations. They’d “made it.” But what did that even mean? Perhaps because they were born of people who had been through the struggle—and were still in it—they were more aware of problems facing larger black society and saw that they needed to do something about it. You can look at music videos from the time and see rappers wearing college paraphernalia—especially sweatshirts and tees with the logos of historically black colleges. People wore the Africa medalions, or Malcolm X hats, or a host of things that sort of represented an aspirational culture—not aspiring to simply have more materially, but also to have meaning. And that’s why you see two elements here that get to the heart of that. First, Bunz finds religion. We believe that our faith can connect us to something greater than ourselves, and in fact fundamentally improve us. But he doesn’t know he has found faith until it is tested. MESSAGE! Rubber, meet road. He had been hired to infiltrate the inner circle of a religious leader to assassinate him, but through the process, he became a true believer—and a better person. The second element was Nas, aka Sincere, moving to Africa. It’s corny in the movie, because Nas is just like, “Let’s move to Africa,” and T-Boz is like, “Okay…okay.” Africa is a big place, a land mass large enough to fit six United States in, and they’re acting like they’re just moving to Cleveland. But it’s just the connection that Nas feels, without any specifics. He doesn’t know what country they’re going to, or even where in Africa they’ll be. They’re just moving to Africa. But you know what? That’s exactly where a lot of people were in the late 90s: wanting to connect to their culture, knowing vaguely that the culture was African, and that’s about it. It didn’t make a lot of sense…but it made all the sense in the world. It was poorly thought out. But it’s how the movie ended: by going to Africa. The thing is, we never see them in Africa, we never see the reality of the situation over there. We don’t know where they ended up, or how a blonde, permed New Yorker like T-Boz adjusted or what. And I think that’s kind of the point: they weren’t going to REAL Africa….they were moving to Jamie Foxx Whisper Africaaaaa. They were moving to a platonic ideal, not any place that exists on any real map in the world. I think Hype, too, struggled with what the meaning of that whole scene was. If there’s a third element—a third path that Hype talks about, it’s education. It’s more subtle because you don’t see school. But what you do see is the value of reading and learning. Bunz’s transformation is nearly complete when you have the guy who started by saying “he never read a book” in his life and “f**k a book, man” ends up reading and seeking knowledge for himself. Someone has said, “if you wanna hide something from a n***a, put it in a book.” Hype demonstrated that books were no longer safe hiding places from Bunz.
People talk about film as art, but most people don’t think about film as art. They think of it as product. Is the movie good or bad? Funny or not funny? Scary or not scary? But I think viewers of Belly really benefit from taking the perspective of film as art. It’s not just about story. It’s about visual stimulations, and especially symbols. Hype Williams shoots many of the scenes as though they are moving photographs. For example:
And he includes some important and striking art in the background of the film, including this piece by French fashion photographer Thierry Le Goues:
Finally, I haven’t even mentioned the Belly soundtrack. I wouldn’t say it’s the greatest soundtrack in the world, but it’s appropriate for the time and the film and has some strong moments. Production came from Tone and Poke (remember them? I do…barely…only because I heard them shouted out in a couple of songs), Swizz Beatz, and Diddy. It’s where we first heard D’Angelo’s “Devil’s Pie”…again, so appropriate. DMX, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, RZA, ODB, Raekwon, Gang Starr, the LOX, Sean Paul, Sparkle, Ja Rule, Jay-Z, Beanie Siegal, Nore, Maze, Mya, …and Sparkle. Remember Sparkle? She was the R. Kelly protege who is related to the girl who…you know what, never mind. She had a decent voice and sang “Be Careful,” which I thought was a great song. With talent lineup like that, how could the Belly soundtrack lose? NOT TO MENTION that the score for the movie included Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life.” No other song, besides Devil’s Pie, really matters too much after that. Hype made a video for Soul II Soul for free, and to be honest, when I think of the song, I visualize a club robbery, not the original video for the song.
This movie, more than a lot of others, is about more than just the story told by the script. This is a movie that you can’t just watch—you have to actually look at. You don’t just hear the film, you have to listen to it. Forget about what the movie is about, and think about what the movie is really about. That’s the key to appreciating and maybe even enjoying Belly.