'Belly' at 25: How Hype Williams, DMX, and Nas Created a Classic Hip Hop Film

We're traveling back to 1998

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Artisan Pictures

If you're a lover of all things Hip Hop, Rap, and gangsta, there are certain movies that are considered must-watch certified classics. Films like Friday (1995), Boyz n the Hood (1991), and Paid in Full (2002), are a few iconic titles in this category, and of course, so is 1998's Belly, which celebrates its 25th anniversary tomorrow. Released November 4th, 1998, the film was directed by Hype Williams in what was his feature film directorial debut, and starred DMX and Nas in their respective film debuts. To date, Belly remains the only film Hype Williams has ever directed (who went back to his main craft of music videos after the movie's release), while on the opposite end it was just the beginning of DMS and Nas' foray into the world of film. In celebration of a truly epic moment in time, we're taking a look back at how all three (and a few others) came together to create a Hip Hop classic.

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What was 'Belly' about?

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Artisan Entertainment

Belly tells the story of life-long close friends Sincere (Nas) and Buns (DMX) who are doing whatever it takes to survive a life of crime and hustle. Drug dealing and robbery have been at the forefront of their lives, but Sincere is tired of the lifestyle and looking for other areas of fulfillment and money making. This leads to him joining a black Muslim religious group in the hopes of turning his life around. Meanwhile, Buns is only getting deeper into the crime lifestyle and is facing some hard core prison time as a result. He strikes a deal with cops that will set him free, but that deal means killing the head of the Muslim group Sincere is a part of.

The cast

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Artisan Entertainment

As we just mentioned, Nas and DMX starred as the titular characters Sincere and Buns. However, Belly also featured other notable names that played important roles in the films such as Tionne aka T-Boz Watkins playing Sincere's wife "Tionne," Taral Hicks taking on the role of Buns' girlfriend Keisha, Method Man starring as Shameek aka Father Sha. You'll also recognize Sean Paul, Mr. Vegas, Ghostface Killah, and MTV news host Kurt Loder making cameo appearances as well.

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Artisan Entertainment
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Artisan Entertainment

Additionally, Belly also saw the likes of Tyrin Turner as Big Head Rico, Hassan Johnson as Mark, Oliver "Power" Grant as Knowledge, Louie Rankin as Lennox aka Ox amongst others.

The director

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Artisan Films

It's truly a shame that Belly was the only time we saw Hype in the feature film director seat because the cinematic experience and visuals were simply stunning. Aside from the storyline being intriguing, this movie was beautiful to look at. Here are some more shots that highlight the imagery.

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Artisan Films
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Artisan Films
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Artisan Films

The original trailer

The legendary intro

A review from 1998

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Artisan Films

And now comes the part where we take a review from the actual time period that the project released. Today's retrospective comes from Variety, who's review from Leonard Klady went live today. In it Klady says:

"Belly isn’t much different in theme from countless Warner Bros. gangster melodramas of the 1930s or 1970s blaxploitation pictures. In this formula, crime equals death, and education and contrition are the bad man’s only chances for redemption."

Continuing, Klady adds:

"The performances of Nas and DMX have a visceral power and sense of truth that transcend the minimal support of the script. They have presence, no doubt developed from their work as performance artists, and the director uses them for their iconographic rather than thespian qualities. Watkins and Taral Hicks, as Tommy’s hard-nosed girlfriend, provide strong supporting perfs along with a handful of wise guys played by rappers Power, Method Man and Louie Rankin."

Do we agree?

It's kind of hard to assess whether or not Klady's point of the film being a "minimal script" is one of criticism or just a general note. Not every movie needs an intricate plot full of twists and turns in order for it to be interesting in my opinion. This was especially true of 1990s films, and rings true when it comes to Belly. I do agree with the performances of DMX and Nas being standouts, but I think we also have to call attention to T-Boz who was a natural. At no point did it ever feel like T-Boz was "acting," and she had a very down-to-earth motherly vibe that made it easy to connect with her. Taral Hicks was also very entertaining as Keisha (and her style was amazing), so I think props need to be given to her as well.

While the review did criticize Williams' directing of the film as being "rhythmic, repetitive, and tedious," I think that's what actually made the movie strong. Hype had a specific style when it came to his music videos in the late 1990s and early 2000s. You can't really explain it, you just automatically knew it was Hype behind the camera. If you understand that, then you understand there's elements of Belly that kind of look like a more "extensive music video"—a music video times ten so to speak, and in my opinion the cinematography was very enjoyable.

Regardless, Belly has become a film that has withstood the test of time.

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