The Savage Stack: BELLY (1998)

Hype WIlliams' sole feature film is a visually arresting fantasy of hip hop video ultra-violence.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The seventh entry into this unbroken backlog is Hype Williams’ hyper-stylized hip hop crime saga, Belly

Without Hype Williams, the hip hop music video wouldn’t be the same. Beginning in ‘91 with BWP’s “We Want Money”, Williams blazed a path that would revolutionize the language of cinema for the MTV Generation. The director arguably peaked between ’95-‘97, delivering classic clips like The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa”, Missy Elliott’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” and R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” – mini-movies for mix tape loving reprobates who loved challenging their stereo systems’ capacity for bass. With an array of fish eye lenses, leering camerawork, and costume changes, a musical style discovered its ultimate documentarian, cementing icons while bringing black fantasies to life. Williams continued to churn out videos even as MTV started to “stop playing music”, helming Jay-Z and UGK’s “Big Pimpin’”, writing the short film for Kanye West’s “Runaway” and reteaming with old inspiration Ma$e (who co-starred in the post-Biggie “Mo Money, Mo Problems” spot with Puff Daddy) for “When NY was NY” in ‘15. However, Hype was only granted one shot at big screen glory with the garish, ultra-violent Belly; showcasing and stretching his unique visual vocabulary to it very limits. Though the movie is utterly mesmerizing as a “how does this even exist?” oddity, it’s also a textbook example of an artist drowning in the medium they’re punch drunk in love with.

According to King Magazine’s oral history, Belly was conceived by Williams and screenwriter Anthony Bodden as a way to cinematically represent hip hop at the turn of 21st Century. Keeping this motivation in mind, Belly is a classic Blaxploitation picture – an act of self-representation from members of a community that found itself neglected in mainstream movies. Being a rather severe stylist, Williams wasn’t content with bringing in actors to tell this crime tale. He wanted those who called this musical landscape home to be placed front and center; ambassadors of sight and sound who could deliver authenticity to the gangland sandbox he was playing in. This commitment to legitimacy resulted in a rather chaotic shoot, as his performers would often show up “drunk, high, late or all of the above” – byproducts of a lifestyle Belly portrays and ultimately somewhat condemns. When combined with Williams’ rookie status as a feature filmmaker and the reportedly routine script tinkering that was happening on set each day, the end product is a bizarre work of pure cinema that operates almost exclusively on a heightened optical level.

The plot to Belly is almost an afterthought. Two best friends – Sincere (Nas) and Tommy (DMX) –are small time crooks on the rise in the NYC underworld. Via a Kurt Loder MTV News interruption, Tommy learns of a new synthetic heroin that’s becoming popular in Jamaica, and partners with Ox (Louie Rankin), a Jamaican drug lord who backs his play in return for a favor at a later date. Though Sincere is reluctant to get into the drug game as a result of becoming educated in the plight of urban poverty, he helps Tommy move weight into the heartland of America and away from his community. It’s a rise to power narrative that never actually shows its two leads ascending above their current status. Sure, they bank a bunch of money and run into conflict with an Omaha cartel (led by a banana-sucking, wig wearing Tyrin Turner as Big Head Rico), but they’re certainly not a couple of Tony Montanas by the climax. Instead, Belly plays like a fever dream slice of life; Goodfellas rolled up in a blunt and sprinkled with a hefty helping of angel dust, all while ‘98’s hottest tracks infiltrate our smoked out consciousness.

Simultaneously, Belly is a movie high on movies. You can feel the DNA of famous genre directors spliced into Williams’ MTV aesthetic. The black and white Le Corbusier architecture and decoration that dots Tommy’s home feels pulled straight from Manhunter-era Mann. The way Williams’ camera becomes jangly and handheld, prowling the wood paneled basements and fluorescent-lit barber shops, has an air of Ferrara, keeping us grounded even as the picture reaches dizzying levels of anti-reality. A shoot out at a drug lord’s mansion is built up and paid off in the same fashion as Tony’s death at the bombastic end of De Palma’s Scarface (though the tribal assassin here is a nightmare double of Grace Jones). The dueling narration and glorification of street life is straight out of Scorsese’s Hill/Rothsteinduology. Hell, even Harmony Korine’s Gummo plays on the big screen at one of the gangsters’ homes, completely bewildering his associates, who can’t figure out just what this boy with the pink bunny ears is doing on the TV. Williams is clearly obsessed with the form, cribbing from his collection and then retooling these influences in his own image. Sometimes the barrage of familiarity can be distracting (as it often feels like we’re getting twenty different films in one), yet it’s hard to fault the writer/director for wearing the ingredient list of this wild amalgam on his sleeve like a badge of honor.

The performances in Belly are unusual, as Williams again seems to be going for authenticity over acting ability. Nas certainly has the hardest task, delivering pages of voice over with the inflection of a spoken word interlude on Illmatic. He looks and sounds the part – weary and consumed by an existential guilt regarding the potential for leaving a wife (TLC’S Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins) and small child behind should he get got. However, there’s very little to his screen presence beyond the audience’s recognition of his musical persona. On the other hand, DMX is a live-wire; a Pesci-esque maniac (it can’t be a coincidence his name is Tommy) who will run you over in his tricked out Mercedes if there’s a dollar waiting at the other end of the street. By all accounts, DMX – a former stick up kid turned rising Def Jam rapper by ‘98 – wasn’t so much acting as he was revisiting his street roots. There’s an unscripted cadence to his dialogue, punctuated by so much profanity that the only other explanation would be a lack of vocabulary on Williams and Bodden’s part. It’s electrifying; the unpredictability of his every action lending an innate tension to each scene he appears in. This improvisational essence carries over to Watkins and Taral Hicks (who plays Tommy’s main squeeze, Kisha). Williams freely admits in the DVD commentary that he didn’t feel comfortable writing dialogue for women, so he allowed the two actresses to ad-lib many of their scenes, creating a sense of naturalism that clashes with his amplified arena. Yet that’s just another reason why Belly is completely fascinating; the grounded nature of these real human beings existing in an otherworldly universe of fierceness.

Even if the performances don’t do much for the viewer, the series of seemingly never ending set pieces has to (unless they’re blind, of course). From the opening Soul 2 Soul a capella club entrance (filmed in New York’s infamous Tunnel), to the numerous gun battles, where Williams is harnessing his camera to the barrels, it’s a barrage of innovative visual playfulness. There are so many arresting moments contained within the brief running time of Belly that it’s only after the movie ends and you’re mulling it over a blunt of your own that it becomes clear the film works best in three minute bursts and doesn’t add up to a whole lot narratively or thematically. In fact, once Tommy’s recruited by a shady white government official (voiced by on set acting coach and mafia movie regular Frank Vincent) to assassinate a Nation of Islam preacher, it’s readily apparent Williams’ picture is actually moving toward rejecting the image it just spent ninety odd minutes lionizing. This last ditch moralizing is curiously out of place (again, the result of numerous screenplay edits), but also reinforces just how feverish the rest of the film really is. Nevertheless, Belly could also be viewed as Williams creating an intersection of the fantasies he was producing for MTV and the street life many entertainers like Nas and DMX originally hail from. The harsh realities of living in the ghetto are alleviated by flights of temporary fancy made possible by the lucrative drug enterprise. Once a storm of bullets begins raining down on Sincere and Tommy's meager kingdom, the only refuge sought is in religion or a retreat to the motherland of Africa. It was all a dream, but now they're awake and they hate their dream.

Belly is available now on DVD.