When Belly, the first and only feature-length movie from music video legend Hype Williams, arrived in theaters in 1998, critics blasted it. Many rap fans, reacting in equal measure, were quick to call the movie great, arguing that critics didn’t just get it. Fifteen years later, the truth about Belly isn’t that it’s good or bad (it’s a bit of both), but that it's really, really weird.
The plot moves through enough stories for a half-dozen screenplays. Most of the scenes bring the story to a screeching halt, like the movie's lost track of time admiring its own style in the mirror. (This makes Belly something like a John Waters movie, where the story is useful only in that it can move things from one moment of spectacle to the next.) When the movie takes the longest looks, Belly is so strange and awesome, it feels like love.
The opening robbery, shot at Peter Gatien’s New York nightclub The Tunnel, is mesmerizing. The subsequent scene at Buns’ (DMX) crib, with the low-angle shots of enormous pieces of art, black-and-white color palatte, and the scenes from Harmony Korine’s Gummo (a-not-so-subtle note to the reader that Belly should be treated like a cult classic, a midnight movie more than the rap GoodFellas) are just as compulsively watchable. And then there’s the sex montage a few minutes later, which is ludicrous and beautiful and uncalled for and unpredictable. How is this happening? What is anything?
Belly falters when it becomes more an act of transcription than a movie. Having Nas’ character narrate about the size of one character’s breasts while showing the viewer those breasts is a poor choice. Showing while telling makes everyone feel stupid, including the viewer. But those errors in storytelling don’t detract from the other peaks on display, like everything involving Rico, Tyrin Turner’s immaculately coiffed Omaha gangster.
On the movie's 15th anniversary, we’re looking at the performances in Belly, to determine who did it right and who slept through the shoot.