The Hip Hop crime drama Belly isn't as great as some remember.
Belly released in theaters on November 4, 1998. The film was written and directed by the most in-demand Hip-Hop/R&B music video director at the time, Hype Williams.
Belly - Trailer youtu.be
Belly's cast consists of rap's biggest stars at the time, Nas, DMX, and Method Man. Belly became an instant cult classic in the Hip-Hop community; its cinematography and gritty depiction of street life were as vivid as some of its cast's infamous lyrics. However, once you remove the all-star cast and the sensationalized presentation of street life, it is a story that is flawed and unrealistic.
Belly's plot focuses on Sincere (Nas) and Tommy, AKA Buns (DMX), childhood friends who are involved in the drug game. Though the two men are inseparable, their temperaments are in stark contrast with each other.
Sincere is a reserved and pensive individual seeking enlightenment, while Tommy is a reckless hothead prone to attracting mayhem and chaos. However, this vast personality difference isn't the issue; the problem is inconsistencies in their characters.
Despite being more self-aware and knowledgeable than Buns, Sincere is still a drug dealer. He hinges a lot of his ideology on Pro-Blackness and overcoming oppression while taking part in activities that contribute to the destruction of the Black community. It's not uncommon in crime films to have a conflicted figure with a half-formed moral code, but Sincere is more of a hypocrite than a tormented soul seeking inner peace
Meanwhile, Tommy's aggressive and erratic personality showcases him as a liability rather than someone who commands fear and respect. To slip under the law requires poise and discretion, but Tommy willingly puts himself in the line of fire. A smart heroin dealer under surveillance wouldn't drive over the speed limit while smoking weed or remain at the scene of a murder (that he didn't commit) waiting for the police to arrest them.
Flimsy character development aside, some of the performances in Belly were noteworthy. DMX's portrayal as Tommy possessed a level of intensity that would lend itself to him becoming a believable actor in films such as Romeo Must Die and Cradle 2 the Grave. Method Man as Shameek showcased his versatility, as he was able to play a loyal street soldier disguised as a loudmouth out-of-towner.
At the same time, however, Nas's performance was devoid of all human emotions. Sincere's aura is supposed to be one of calmness and composure, but he didn't so much as raise his voice when telling his significant other, Tionne (played by T-Boz), he was shot. Nas's deadpan delivery could be due to this being his first time acting in a film, but this was DMX's first official acting gig as well.
Another flaw is Sincere and Tommy's respective character arcs. The progression of these main protagonists realizing their full potential is underwhelming and confusing.
Midway through the film, Sincere expresses his interest in moving to Africa to Tionne. He is on a path of self-discovery, so connecting with motherland would be a profound experience...supposedly.
Sincere's decision comes across as frivolous due, in large part, to his unenthusiastic delivery. The movie illustrates his desire to leave the drug game behind and start a new life with his family, but the script failed to convey enthusiasm for this restart.
Then, there's the plot. Tommy's transformation comes in the form of him suddenly becoming involved in espionage. After his arrest and release, Tommy is approached by a mysterious agency that wants him to carry out an assassination plot on New Year's Eve. The target is a Black Muslim leader before he makes a monumental speech.
The incoherent and inconsistent nature of this plan plays as lazy storytelling. Why would a covert government agency enlist the services of an unstable heroin dealer to kill a prominent Black leader? Also, the motive behind the assassination and why Tommy would agree to go through with it is never fully explained.
Belly is a film that aided in showing Hip-Hop's alluring power beyond music. It helped show Hollywood that rap artists could be viable movie stars. As a cultural classic, the movie was the epitome of Hip-Hop and the streets at the time. But as a film itself, it comes across as a parody of both.
Still, the movie maintains its sentimental value amongst the Hip-Hop faithful. The bright spots in the form of Hype Williams's crisp camera work and great acting keep the film from being unwatchable overall. That honor is reserved for its sequel, Belly 2: Millionaire Boyz Club