If you’ve ever daydreamed about a better life for yourself, it usually goes one of two ways: in the first, you have everything you ever wanted and you’re spoiled for choice. In the second there’s a moral dimension. You’re not only better off, but you’re a better person.
One of the unexpectedly best things I saw this year is about both kinds of fantasy. Belly is a 1998 feature directed by artist/music video director Hype Williams and starring rappers Nas and DMX. Hype takes a simple idea of two career criminals who each in their own way try to make a better life for themselves, and he totally elevates it into some kind of fairy tale using beautiful sets and cinematography.
Where more recent films like Refn’s Only God Forgives and Korine’s Spring Breakers mostly rely on neon colors to achieve an exotic hyperreality, Belly expertly applies a richer variety of set designs that are simultaneously more true to life and more out of this world.
This movie begs to be misunderstood. It’s style is so magnanimous and its substance so succinct it’s been written off as derivative fluff with unsympathetic leads, which is a shame. While no one is going to fall over themselves praising the screenplay or the performances of the two leads, Belly is still a wistful, powerful act of imagination: how would a murderous criminal do the impossible and put an unforgivable life behind himself?
The answers are as stylized as the look of the movie itself. Nas’ character desires to take his wife and child to Africa, a sort of ultimate opt-out that does not involve rejecting his own sense of culture and identity. It’s an escapist dream that commonly plays on the mind of migrant communities: to see the motherland and in the process become self-actualized in an ennobling way.
The answer for DMX’s character is more complex. As he proceeds down an avaricious path with increasing numbness to his own well-being, he is caught by federal agents (or are they? We never even see their faces, let alone their badges) and agrees to commit a crime to maintain his freedom. He’s to join a Black Muslim movement and assassinate their leader. He grows increasingly hesitant as he begins to identify with the movement. At the climax of the film he happens upon the leader, glistening pistol in hand, and receives a private sermon that will guide his final decision.
That’s a rather conspiratorial scenario. It is highly dramatic, too easily laughed off by people craving pure gritty realism. You have to remember Hype Williams makes hip hop music videos. He’s not out of touch with reality, he’s simply accustomed to sculpting hyper reality. Even if you glibly cross your arms and reject its farfetchedness, you should be able to see the truth contained within it.
Organized efforts from within oppressed communities to achieve upward growth are often criminalized themselves, becoming an even greater antagonistic force to the establishment than the criminal behavior they seek to redress. DMX’s character embodies that social dilemma; he deals with it in a literal, tactile manner. Who cares how far-fetched it seems?
There are two halves of the film. In the first, we see the criminality of the two main characters. We’re drawn into the drama of their ambitions, rendered in lush, radiating environments. In the second half, we see the illusory nature of what they’re after, and their attempts at redemption. Both halves are daydreamed fantasy. Like I said at the beginning: sometimes we dream of having more, other times we dream of being more. Give me dreams that are both visually and conceptually compelling, plausibility be damned.
I think Belly was a film ahead of its time. In the world of affordable high-definition displays we find ourselves in presently, the movie is in a place to be more fully appreciated on visual terms. And as smaller, more experimental films have wider social acceptance, maybe young audiences can more easily make the jump to something like Belly. Hell, they’ve done more for less.