Holy Hell! Belly Turns 20

Holy Hell! Belly Turns 20

Belly still stands as one of 1998’s most audacious, enduringly captivating entries, a truly singular work worthy of rediscovery.

Few film genres feel as locked into a particular time period as blaxploitation. The name alone conjures sounds of scratching funk guitar and images of flamboyant hustlers and low-level dealers. Though the genre’s issues of inner-city degradation due to internal and external forces were only compounded in the intervening decades—factoring in gentrification and re-disenfranchisement—blaxploitation remains broadly encased in amber, and new entries in the genre primarily dust off the iconography of the 1970s to either replicate glory days or, in the case of Jackie Brown, to study how it has aged.

Hype Williams’ Belly, then, is an anomaly, a genuine update of blaxploitation that is informed by its own era rather than the past. A celebrated music video filmmaker, Williams brought a visual sense inexorably tied contemporary late-‘90s hip-hop and R&B. It announces its bold sense of style from the outset in an opening nightclub heist led by Tommy Buns (DMX) and his best friend, Sincere (Nas). Slow-motion images of the crew approaching the club immediately showcase the plunging shadows and low lighting that defines much of Malik Hassan Sayeed’s cinematography, and as soon as the men go inside they are bathed in blacklights that highlight the glowing whites of their eyes. As strobe lights render the club in staccato bursts of light, the men load and put silencers on pistols and shoot up a VIP room to steal thousands of dollars.

Energetic as this opening is, the film swiftly pivots to a growing moral schism between Tommy, who is becoming increasingly bloodthirsty in his pursuit of greater riches, and Sin, who has grown uncomfortable with a life born of robbing those as poor as he. As Sin retreats from the crew, Tommy decides to try his hand at dealing a new brand of heroin, getting supplies from a Jamaican drug lord, Ox (Louie Rankin). Intriguingly, Tommy does not deal in New York City but instead relocates to Omaha, Nebraska, where he establishes a fledgling empire selling to a clientele consisting mostly of white youths. Eventually, rivals begin to target Tommy and Ox for encroaching upon their territory.

Admittedly, the plot quickly gets away from itself. The forces marshaled against Tommy are incredibly powerful but nebulously defined, and it’s hard at times to tell which figures belong to which crew. Sincere pulls away from the drug life so early in the film that he fades into more of a shoulder angel than a co-protagonist, appearing at times when Tommy has sunk to a new low to remind him and the audience of a better life. Williams’s script crams so much social commentary that some potentially devastating critiques are developed just enough to make the audience do the work of contemplating their resonance. That includes everything from Tommy’s principal clients being white to the dealer eventually being recruited by cops to assassinate a black Muslim minister (Ben Chavis) that recalibrates the entire last act.

Nonetheless, these narrative markers transparently exist to set up scenes where Williams and Sayeed can further experiment visually. Watch the care with which they establish Sincere’s and Tommy’s respective homes: Tommy lives in a comfortable but relatively modest house lit in bronze, warm tones that speak to his supportive relationship with girlfriend Tionne (Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins) and their infant. Tommy, meanwhile, lives in a lavish home painted ultra-modern white, decorated with infrared-black images that loom in low-angle shots that emphasize Tommy’s opulence. The blown-out contrast of the sterile white walls and hyper-dark photographs leaves his home cold, a mirthless reflection of his soulless grind. Elsewhere, Williams uses music video-derived editing to introduce and develop characters visually more than textually, and his action scenes utilize everything from POV shots to slow-motion to show off his ingenuity. The film’s best sequence, a shootout in Ox’s mansion, is a marvel of brief but explosive action. Williams shoots the sequence almost gothically, plunging the cavernous halls and foyers in blackness, through which attackers move like shadows, marked only by laser sights and muzzle flashes as Ox fights back with calculated precision. The final, wuxia-esque touches of the scene only cement its greatness.

Looking back, it’s hard not to feel that Belly should have been the start of a genre revival, not a bold, peerless curio. Its flaws are chiefly ones of ambition, of addressing myriad social ills old and new while remaining locked in to a tight 90-minute runtime. Williams returned to music videos after this, and would go on to craft as many distinguished, relevant videos in the intervening decades as he did in the lead-up to this. Frustratingly, the film remains Williams’ only feature, further cementing it as a strange outlier. Regardless of its muted impact, Belly still stands as one of 1998’s most audacious, enduringly captivating entries, a truly singular work worthy of rediscovery.

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