By Zak Rye. Between low-brow and no-brow, this is unCultured, where we shamelessly promote and defend some of the worst films ever made. This week’s installment features Hype Willimas’ effulgent feature film, Belly.
Hype Williams brilliantly advised much of what (you thought) was cool in the late 1990s. The relationship between “grunge” and mass media had gone south, and Hype had placed himself in a prime position to lead a new pack of desirable alternatives. With a Nirvana-sized hole in MTV’s heart, hip-hop was about to see an official payday. Having already directed a handful of pretty decent music videos, which generated a pretty decent amount of underground and commercial acceptance, Hype was on the brink of redefining the rap video, changing the perception and expectation of commercialized hip-hop. The classically gritty, scowling, hoodie-clad MC was replaced by smiling, flashy bon vivants soaked in neon light. Hip-hop transitioned, practically overnight, from intimidating to approachable… and insanely profitable. Profitable enough for Hype to write, direct, and produce his only feature film, Belly. Nas may have put it best in an interview with the A.V. Club in 2008: “It was his next thing to do. He had killed the video and turned it into a whole different game”.
Belly focuses on a simple, familiar, and provocative theme: lots of inner-city black kids are, unfortunately, raised with two options, get out or go all in. As opposed to comparable and beloved films like Boyz in the Hood and Menace 2 Society, Belly isn’t about getting out of the projects, it’s about getting out of the life that the projects have handed you. Williams’ day-glo opus follows the lives of Sincere (“Sin”) and Tommy Bundy (“Buns”), career criminals and childhood friends portrayed by Nas and DMX. The film opens to a highly saturated and visually striking depiction of a violent robbery. Williams intends for the audience to simply observe these men “doing what they do”, perhaps purposefully allowing the viewer to perceive Sin and Bund as mere more than everyday gangsters. What we don’t expect is a sudden realization that Willams’ creativity might transcend fish-eye shots and shiny suits, and that this motherfucker can also tell a story.
Self-described throughout the film as “Butch & Sundance” or “Tango & Cash”, Sin and Bund are written and portrayed with a very noticeable “you complete me” undertone. Williams does succeed, however, in producing two well-developed and compelling characters by playing on the already gigantic personalities of these two men. Bund is, quite simply, DMX, and DMX is terrifying. Nas, also, slips effortlessly into the role of Sin, Bund’s soft-spoken and somewhat level headed counterpart. Dissatisfied with their current illegal income, Bund’s convinces a reluctant Sin that, “there’s no money like drug money.” Soon, they’re successfully transporting a new form of heroin, supplied by Jamaican kingpin, Ox, played by dancehall legend Louie Rankin.
Digging deeper into an inescapable layer of the underworld, Buns leaves his “ghetto Naomi Cambpell” girlfriend Keisha (Taral Hicks) and 16-year-old side chick (Vita Raynor) behind. Meanwhile, Sin is realizing the unfortunate inevitably that he, his girlfriend Tionne (Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins), and infant daughter Kenya are faced with. Ultimately influenced by their inherent values, Sin and Buns’ paths begin to separate. As things fall apart and unfortunate events unfold, (including but not specific to an expected yet amazing “Scarface meets Doom” shootout), Williams infuses an inspired, Icarus-esque moral to the story. Whether the sun represents the law, revenge, or death, these two fly real close to it.
As the casualties pile up, both men are forced to reconcile in their own, equally clichéd ways. In the film’s commentary, Hype insists that this was a direct result of the studio’s re-writes. The original ending was to include an entire Y2K arc, and while we’re sure that could have been delightfully weird, in this case, the studio may have made the more suitable choice. Still, by hacking out large sections of the third act, the movie makes an unexpected and unintended last minute turn. Suddenly Buns, after a short stretch in jail, is a reformed, spiritual man who has been recruited to kill a prominent black religious figure, while Sin is halfway to Africa with Tionne and Kenya.
Williams has publicly lamented, numerous times, the studio stripping his script down to a level that he was reasonably uncomfortable with. Luckily, the film’s photography accomplishes such an incredibly strong foundation that one would hardly notice the sour notes in the script. Williams’ direction has narrative depth, composing beautiful and thoughtful color palettes for each character, setting, and theme. The camera work mirrors the dynamic, anything-but-subtle, visual themes of the film and, while I’ve not tried it, I’d guess that one could watch Belly on mute and not miss a beat. The influence of Scorsese, DePalma, and Kubrick is certainly undeniable, but Williams’ emulation feels respectful, almost loving.
Having a (surprisingly) self-admitted propensity towards realism, (conceivably responsible for his choice to prominently feature Harmony Korine’s Gummo in the film), Williams is very careful to leave a precise amount of dust and scratches in the final cut. Even some of the most seemingly flawless single frame track shots appear to have moments of deliberate turbulence. (Hype is the first to admit, “if you have a shitty TV, this is not gonna look right.”) Throughout the film, subtle nuances are often outshined by the tremendous visual aesthetics. The optimistic human could view this as purposeful, adding layers and clues that become uncovered over multiple viewings. While it’s not at all out of the question that Williams could certainly be an obsessive David Lynch fan, we’re satisfied in assuming that this was a happy accident.
Belly may have been expected to be “Mo Money Mo Problems: The Movie” and we suppose that in that case, it more than surpassed expectation. Unfortunately, audiences and critics alike quickly dismissed the film, mostly due to its choppy plot. From what we can tell, Belly was nominated for one award, an Independent Spirit award for best cinematography that ended up going to Velvet fucking Goldmine. Originally intended to have a three-hour running time, including 3 multiple endings, Williams obviously had much more to say. While it’s not likely, we have our fingers crossed for a re-mastered director’s cut. Nevertheless, the artistic statement of Belly is clear. Williams, begrudgingly, composed a complex and charismatic genre piece that, while paying homage to many, stands alone in style.
unCultured’s List of Cool Shit That Happens:
– The gruesome restaurant scene, (based on true events) shot at Justin’s, Sean “P Diddy” Combs’ New York eatery.
– Southern boss, Big Head Rico (Tyrin Turner) being oddly threatening while rocking a weave and eating a banana.
– Buns being recruited by an (FBI?) agent played by Frank “Billy Batts” Vincent.
– Method Man stealing the whole fucking show with his near-cameo appearance as assassin, Shameek.
– Chaquita, the larger than life Jamaican femme fatale who is mysteriously not credited in the film.