Every week for the foreseeable future, Vulture will be selecting one film to watch as part of our Friday Night Movie Club. This week’s selection comes from the writer Jordan Coley, who will begin his screening of Belly on April 16 at 7 p.m. ET. Head to Vulture’s Twitter to catch his live commentary.
My favorite scene in Belly isn’t the iconic blacklight-lit opening sequence. It comes later, somewhere in the second act, when a cell of masked mercenaries has descended on the mansion of Jamaican drug mafioso Lennox. Realizing he’s under siege, “Ox” swiftly procures a semi-automatic rifle from underneath a couch cushion, returns fire on his assailants, and, in his gravelly Kingston baritone, barks a challenge at the intruders: “Who wan’ test me? Come on! You know who you a bumbaclot romp wit? Unu know me?? I am the original Jamaican Don Dada!” The line has been bounding around my brain for the better part of 20 years. I must’ve first encountered it at some family gathering. I remember how my older cousin Bryan, then a teenager, would recite it with sadistic, juvenile glee while terrorizing us younglings. For years, I didn’t even realize that he was quoting a movie. When I watched Belly for the first time, in the fall of 2019, the scene delivered the kind of “aha!” moment I can only liken to watching that episode of The Wire where Wee Bey does the GIF.
I imagine the entire film functions this way for a lot of people my age. The iconic lines, the even-more-iconic stills, and the foundational era of late ’90s and early aughts hip-hop that Belly embodies with a glossy, chromatic sheen have, in large part, arrived to many of my fellow young millennials already worn in, like a hand-me-down FUBU jersey or a scratched copy of The Blueprint. Rewatching now, at 26, I recognize how the movie and its glamorized masculine bravado shaped the men I looked up to and, consequently, shaped me. I also recognize how, by 1998, hip-hop’s practitioners had not only become savvy salesmen of a particular myth about street life — that its incumbent pitfalls could be overcome with a certain amount of clever thinking and improved decision-making — but may have even started to get high on their own supply.
Belly revolves around a tussle between good and bad, light and dark. There’s Tommy “Buns” Bundy, a successful, hotheaded street criminal embodied with an insouciant vigor by the late DMX. And then there’s Sincere, his more mild-mannered partner in crime who is having second thoughts about the worthwhileness of street life, played drowsily by Nas. Buns is a philanderer and a pedophile; Sincere is a faithful partner and loving father. They are foils, standing at opposite sides of the track, each beckoning the other to cross over. Buns learns of a new, highly addictive kind of heroin being run through the Caribbean and wants to get in on the action. While Sincere is at home reading books with “self-improvement” printed on the cover, Buns is in Jamaica sporting faux-locs and performing assassinations. Sincere is taken with the idea of leaving Queens with his family and “going to Africa”; Buns is taken in by the Feds.
By 1998, Hype Williams was already considered hip-hop’s premiere music video auteur, having helmed ’90s touchstones like Missy Elliot’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” and 2pac’s “California Love,” but Belly would be his first (and only) attempt at directing a feature film. In King magazine’s 2008 oral history of the production, members of the cast and crew discussed the tumultuous shooting process. Clashes between Williams and the film’s financiers seem to plague the shoot, and hoped-for pieces of the director’s original vision weren’t realized. (According to one account, before she backed out, Gwen Stefani was pegged to play a character who gets beheaded.) All this, I imagine, contributed to the film’s plot being at its best facile and moralistic, and at its worst, downright jejune.
But Belly lives on in the pop-cultural imagination for reasons beyond story structure. For one, it’s an incredibly beautiful film. With the help of trusted cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed, Williams crafted some of the most iconic and enduring images of the past 25 years, paying special attention to the way they lit and shot dark skin. (They utilized baby oil to lend characters a beautiful glow.) It’s also one of only a handful of ’90s films about Black city-dwellers that was made by and for Black city-dwellers. Critics hated Belly, but there’s a reason people like me could quote the film without ever having seen it. The score is about as good as it gets. From the stunning “Back to Life” a cappella cue in the opening sequence to the Sean Paul and Mr. Vegas cameo in Kingston, to Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam,” booming in a dimly lit Jamaican bar as the camera hovers on the glistening sweat, clinging to a woman’s bare thighs — you could write a book on it. Perhaps most impactful of all, the film gave many a fitting first introduction to DMX, the only person with enough bark to bring Buns to life, but a man whose pain, introspection, and verve far outpaced anything a movie character could offer.
In his 2000 review of the Ruff Ryders/Cash Money tour for the New York Times, Jon Pareles said of DMX, “In his raps, the gangsta life is a living hell, a constant test of loyalty and resolve.” He could’ve just as easily been writing about X’s performance in Belly. Throughout the film, Buns is running (figuratively and literally) for his life, leaving a trail of death and disorder in his wake. X plays his destructive behavior with an unblinking temerity and a singularly harsh physicality. By the film’s jumbled third act, Buns is tasked with embedding into a Nation of Islam–like organization. In the process of infiltrating the group, he undergoes a spiritual turn, denouncing his past life as a “road to destruction.”
Religion and spirituality figured prominently in DMX’s own life. On his early albums, songs about grand larceny sat next to pleas for divine salvation. But, by the end of his 50 years, DMX understood something that Buns never seems to fully grasp: Pathological behavior can’t be cured away by picking up some scripture and putting on a suit. “Drugs were never the problem; drugs were a symptom of a bigger problem,” DMX explained in a conversation with Talib Kweli last fall. “There’s only so much you can block out before you run out of space … The things you stored away are just gonna come out and fall all over the place. It might not be a pretty situation.” In other words, it might not be the same kind of movie.
Belly is available on PVOD via Prime Video, Google Play, YouTube, and Vudu.