Starring: Nasir “Nas” Jones, Earl “DMX” Simmons, Taral Hicks and Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins
Rated: R Crime/Drama
Directed by Hype Williams, Belly is set in Queens, New York. It’s the last year of the 20th century and the film centers upon the paths of Sincere (Nas) and Buns (DMX) and their life of crime. Having one of the most memorable opening scenes in contemporary urban film culture, it starts with Buns, leading Sincere and two other crew members, Black (Jay Black) and Mark (Hassan Johnson), in a brutal robbery, and accompanying murders, inside a nightclub. Buns’ leadership in illicit activities continues as Sincere’s sense of regret begins to mount. His desire for a more safe and stable life is greatly influenced by his girlfriend, Tionne (T-Boz) and their newborn daughter, Kenya.
Seeking to expand into selling heroin, Buns makes a deal with Ox, a Jamaican druglord. Ox agrees to working with Buns but with the caveat that Buns is in debt with him and it is to be settled in the near future.
With the new supply of heroin, Buns and his crew begin to traffic in a territory of Omaha, Nebraska; however, that territory belongs to a dealer, Rico (Tyrin Turner). Conflict between the leaders occurs and Buns seeks refuge in Jamaica, where Ox calls in his marker for aiding Buns’ entry into the drug trade. As Buns tries to stay two steps away from being caught, Sincere is plotting to leave hustling altogether. He wants to move his family to Africa, planning on leaving New Year’s Day. Will each be able to gain the life they seek? Or will karma be their ultimate destiny? Viewers will be tuned in to see how it turns out for each man and those affiliated with them!
Released in November 1998, Belly was plagued with problems, including being over budget (the opening scene cost a majority of the $7 million film budget), clashing between Hype Williams and the producers, and, notably, containing an underdeveloped plot. In a 2008 King reflection commentary commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the release of Belly, persons affiliated with the film discussed with journalist S. Malcolm their thoughts.
Most reflected on the inexperience, lack of regard, or both that Williams had for film industry protocol, including securing licenses and working with union codes. Clifford “Method Man” Smith who played Shameek in the film offered, “Hype had to work with what he had. They were pulling on his pocket every five minutes, like, “Over budget, don’t have no licenses for that, we can’t do that. But Hype done did that pirate shit on the street with videos, and they not in the video world, so they don’t know Hype could just go and shoot some shit and make it work.”
If these factors were not enough to guarantee failure, many of its lead roles were played by unprofessional actors, including DMX. According to Irv Gotti, CEO and co-founder of Murder Inc. recoding label, he suggested to Williams that DMX should play the starring role of Buns because the experiences of DMX mirrored those of the character.
In the article, “Hype Williams Says JAY-Z’s Name Popped Up During ‘Belly’s Casting” written by Camille Augustin for VIBE, Williams stated, “Back in time remember Hov didn’t pop yet. He wasn’t JAY Z, he was Jay Z, and if you know him, Hov is a real hustler … He comes from a real place. We were working with Def Jam and it was logical for it to be him.” Although DMX would star as “Buns”, Jay-Z would be featured on two cuts of the soundtrack of Belly: “Crew Love” with Memphis Bleek and Beanie Sigel; and “Pre-Game” with Sauce Money.
Despite its failings, Belly became an instant urban film cult classic. From its unforgettable imagery and storyline pacing to the memorable characters and hip-hop designer apparel, the movie’s impact has grown tremendously since its initial release. While DMX referenced the vision of Williams in the VIBE article, stylist June Ambrose, who worked as the costume designer on the film, exclaimed in it that Williams told her that he wanted “…Belly to forecast what the hip-hop genre’s gonna look like in the millennium. I want you to use this as a platform to do that. And I think there were areas in which we did. I went to London and brought Evisus into the States. I used the Ecko rhino for the first time.”
The foresight of Hype Williams proved to be correct. Since this film’s release, Williams has continued to be an innovative videographer and ranks among the most elite. He has created some of the most unforgettable images in music videos of the past two decades. He has worked with everyone from Beyoncé, Rick Ross, Coldplay, Maxi Priest and Missy Elliott to R. Kelly, Chris Brown, Nicki Minaj, Janet Jackson, DMX and Busta Rhymes, with whom he has collaborated on sixteen projects since 1994. His extensive work with such a plethora of artists has surely been influenced by his groundbreaking work in Belly. In “Hype Williams Net Worth 2018 – How Rich Is He Now?”, Steve Dawson wrote of Belly, “The film was profitable at the box-office but received mixed reviews, with some criticism aimed at the films weak plot, but others were greatly impressed by it; the Iowa Film Association called it the ‘most accurate representation of gangster life ever’. Despite the mixed reception, Hype’s visually stunning cinematography was applauded by all, with the highly stylized ‘noir-like’ visual design receiving praise from critics and fans alike.”
Assisting in giving the Belly its cult status is its soundtrack. It contained tracks by various artists including the film’s stars, Nas and DMX as well as Method Man. D’Angelo, Ja Rule, Sean Paul, Noreaga and Soul II Soul, whose “Back to Life” ominously played in the introduction scene of Belly, were also featured. The soundtrack was a great success, reaching #2 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and #5 on the 200, both of Billboard.
In 2008, another film, Belly 2: Millionaire Boyz Club, promoted as the film’s sequel, was released. However, the second film, starring another hip-hop artist, The Game, had little to do with Belly.