Credit: Artisan Entertainment/Lionsgate
by Jake Tropila Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

Belly — Hype Williams

July 3, 2024

Steady, are you ready?

The realm of music videos can be a superb breeding ground for future star filmmakers. Before he was known as the acclaimed director behind such films as Se7en and Zodiac, David Fincher cut his teeth helming projects for the likes of Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Billy Idol, among others, imbuing each work with his typical formal panache. The obvious hurdle to clear when making the transition is runtime; what might work for a three-minute short could feel distended and insufferable at 90 minutes, often resulting in the dismissive and well-worn critique of “style over substance.” In 1998, Hype Williams put this notion to the test with Belly, simultaneously making what would be his feature-length debut and swan song. A storied music video director in his own right — his videography up to that point featured collaborations with Wu-Tang Clan, Usher, and The Notorious B.I.G. — Williams crafted an astonishing style-as-substance masterwork that remains one of the most visually dazzling films of the 1990s, only to then discover that nobody was quite ready to be rocked by such a modern classic. What should have been an instant hit was instead met with poor box office returns and critical indifference, relegating Williams back to directing music videos once again. Time has proven to be kinder to Belly than its contemporaneous reception, the film now rightfully recognized as a brilliant one-off and heralding Williams into the hallowed halls occupied by similar greats as Charles Laughton, Herk Harvey, and Saul Bass. Belly is a formidable film, and one that only grows more potent by the day.

Any thorough appreciation of Belly can be traced right to the opening moments of the film. Narratively, not much happens: four men enter a strip club, shoot five people, rob the evening’s earnings, and flee the scene. Cinematically, though, this sequence is electrifying. Shot largely in slow motion and set to a soothing a capella version of Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life (However Do You Want Me),” the opening of Belly is like strolling through a dream, further accentuated by director of photography Malik Hassan Sayeed’s choice to bathe the entire sequence in gorgeous swaths of blue lighting, which in turn makes the neon contact lenses the actors are wearing pop out of the frame and add to the overall oneiric effect (that Sayeed never directed a feature film is also criminal). The real kicker takes place after the hit, when the four men return to one of their lavish homes and begin watching Harmony Korine’s Gummo on their grand home theater system. It’s a detail so wild that Williams should only be commended for including it.

Many casual fans of Belly regard its introductory sequence as its zenith, or lament that the rest of the film does not quite live up to that standard. While it admittedly does kick things off on an incredible high that is never surpassed, the rest of the film is still very much worthwhile. The story follows childhood friends Sincere and Buns (played respectively by rappers Nas and DMX, both also making their feature film debuts here) as they navigate the drug world of Queens, NY, soon becoming embroiled in the action taking place in Omaha, NE and Kingston, Jamaica. The men inhabit uncompromisingly violent and unforgivable worlds, but neither are characterized as one-note monsters. Williams goes to great lengths to humanize these characters, gifting Sincere with a family he tends to and offering Buns a path to redemption as the turn of the millennium grows increasingly hostile and uncertain — and in that regard, Belly would also make a terrific double feature with Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days for their prophetic looks at the impending Y2K.

Other complaints lobbied at Belly note how familiar or paper-thin the plot is, but these can be dismissed entirely: the film’s plot mechanics are actually quite complex, bordering on indecipherable (potentially necessitating a post-viewing trip to Wikipedia to clarify any narrative confusion), while its use of familiar gangster tropes still packs quite a punch, especially in this strikingly stylized context. Most films of this ilk chart a rise and fall of its protagonists, but Williams is a much more optimistic storyteller, frequently interrogating the world Sincere and Buns inhabit and even offering them a way out. That this film was all but dismissed in 1998 is a scream; as it stands now, Belly remains a singular masterpiece from someone who got out of the game too quickly. Should Williams return to feature filmmaking, on the persisting strength of his debut, there should be no doubt that he will blow us away all over again. Except this time, we’ll be ready.

Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon