Stream of the Week: Belly (1998)
I’ve always had an affinity for gangster films. Aside from being wildly entertaining, they often offer phenomenal critiques of capitalism, ambition and what it means to be successful. This week’s best stream is great example of this; set in 1999, with a new century on the horizon, it follows friends Tommy and Sincere as they rise and fall in New York City’s criminal underworld. Despite them taking wildly different paths, both are ultimately faced with the same choice of whether or not they want to continue living lives filled with drugs, guns and cold hard cash. With some astonishing cinematography, intense acting performances and a strong script, it’s a watch you’re not likely to forget. I’m talking about Hype Williams’ feature film debut, Belly.
By this point in his career, Williams had already been awarded Billboard’s Music Video Award for Best Director of the Year (1996), and was one of the most renowned filmmakers in the hip-hop industry. This musical influence bleeds onto the screen in an astonishing manner, with the camera often taking low angles as it does in music videos, sometimes using the Dutch tilt that was made famous by Spike Lee in 1989’s Do the Right Thing. These expressionistic cinematographic choices are more than just eye-catching, they draw our eye to how these characters’ worldviews are twisted, distorting their morality and very sense of self. This is also reflected in how the film’s dialogue captures the way characters’ identities have been altered by capitalist society. “What kind of man doesn’t want money?” Tommy asks when Sincere expresses doubt in whether or not they should begin selling heroin. Throughout the movie, moments such as this position contemporary conceptualizations of masculinity as being directly tied to how much cash one brings in. It’s a phenomenal bit of social commentary that’s present in each characters’ narrative arc.
Despite the two friends become the biggest dope dealers in the area, Sincere’s initial hesitations only grow, ultimately leading to a split that leads them down very different paths. This culminates in a wildly emotional ending that has both characters choose to forsake their life of crime. Something I really appreciate about this moment was the editing. It cross cuts earlier moments in the movie with a New Year’s Eve countdown in Times Square, showing how our lust for money and power ultimately lead us down a destructive path, but stating that it’s not too late to change course. With the year 2000 just around the corner, Williams saw an opportunity for new beginnings. We can start caring for our communities, ourselves and each other. We can choose life. These pleas for change were embodied in powerhouse acting performances by Nas and DMX, both making their film debuts.
DMX’s Tommy is phenomenal, at times verging on psychotic in his hunger for wealth, regardless of what he has to do to get it. Nas’ amazing portrayal of Sincere is introspective, almost gentle, providing a stark contrast to DMX, allowing the film to show a multitude of masculinities. These two actors make their characters feel so real and lived in, and are helped by Williams’ organic dialogue adding a kind of authenticity to the movie that is rarely seen. I chose this as my first Stream of the Week in 2023 because I find it incredibly relevant to where we stand today. Right now, capital and the power it wields have thrust the world into a situation that can at times seem helplessly violent—but there’s always a choice, always an opportunity to begin anew, if we just see the error in our ways. Belly is streaming for free on Tubi, and is also on Mubi.