1998, R, 110 min. Directed by Hype Williams. Starring Earl Simmons aka DMX, Nasir Jones aka Nas, Oli Grant, Clifford Smith, Taral Hicks, Tionne Watkins aka T-Boz, Louie Rankin.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 6, 1998
Video director Hype Williams' directorial debut shows that he knows a lot about flash and much less about narrative. Belly teems with glamorized shots of sex and violence, while paradoxically advocating for a more decent way of life. At first, the film seems a standard-issue action story about drug dealers from Queens, replete with balletic shootouts, neon-drenched city streets, rapid editing, eye-grabbing images, booty shots galore, and street-language overkill. Two life-long friends, Tommy (Simmons, aka DMX) and Sincere (Jones, aka Nas), live the carefree lives of unrepentant drug dealers who believe that since death is their fate, scoring big money is their only means of making their mark. Tommy has managed to move into a flashy pad on Long Island while Sincere lives in a more modest home in Queens with his wife Tionne (Watkins, aka T-Boz) and baby daughter. The plot has them shooting up discos in New York, and expanding their drug routes to Omaha and Jamaica. In Omaha, Tommy crosses some of the hometown gang and winds up in a bloody shootout and on the run. A federal agent offers Tommy the choice of life in prison or the task of assassinating the leader of a Nation of Islam-like organization led by Benjamin F. Muhammed (aka Benjamin Chavis). Meanwhile, Sincere has been reading Elijah Mohammed's Message to the Black Man and is ready to pack up the family and move to Africa, while at the same time helping his on-the-run best pal. The film concludes with a passionate plea for a new millennial outlook, but the words are at odds with the compelling images of the gangsta life. The cinematography of Malik Hassan Sayeed, who has shot most of Spike Lee's recent films, is stunning. The rap stars-turned-actors who populate this film exude a real presence, if not a wealth of acting chops. Williams' script is a real muddle, however, reinforcing the worst clichés about video directors who make the leap to feature filmmaking.