When Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers was released in 2013, at least a handful of viewers had the same response that I did to the blacklight-lit, slo-mo heist at the film’s climax: “Oh, hey, Korine is doing Belly.”
The reference is to a 1998 film, the first and to date only feature directed by music video visionary Hype Williams, which begins with a blacklight-lit, slo-mo heist. It needs be said that the borrowing goes two ways here: early in Belly, stick-up men Tommy Bunds (DMX), Sincere (Nas), and their partners in crime cool down after a job in Tommy’s immaculate house in posh Jamaica Estates. For a little late-night entertainment, Tommy throws on Korine’s 1997 directorial debut Gummo, which plays for the boys on his big-screen projector. “Shit is bugged out,” Tommy says by way of review, while on screen two white trash boys shoot another dead with pop guns. It’s a sly inverse of the cultural-tourist racial dynamic that occurred with white boys like myself in the Nineties who were absorbing rap music videos—Williams’s primary medium.
The Gummo cameo is one element in the dense network of allusions that Williams lays down in his first-reel pastiche. Tommy’s crib is overtly Kubrickian—a Steadicam prowls the open floor-plan, all Clockwork Orange spotless white, while Thierry Le Gouès’s black-is-beautiful photographs of ebony bodies recall the nude over Scatman Crothers’s bed in The Shining. After a bit, Sincere returns to his wife, Tionne (Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, of the group TLC), and his more modest home in St. Albans, which is (under-)lit in shadowy mahogany tones that seem intended to recall the Corleone compound in The Godfather: Part II. (Earlier, we see a handgun being retrieved from a bathroom stall, a more direct homage to the Coppola films.) While Tommy jumps into the shower, Kurt Loder on MTV News delivers word of a new ultra-potent heroin hitting the streets, and Tommy’s girlfriend, Keisha (Taral Hicks), putting in a call to a telltale number on his pager, gets his 16-year-old sidepiece, Tamika (Tiara Marie), on the line. Tamika, who talks on a pink phone while wearing pink shorts and a pink bikini top in a pink room, looks like she’s being broadcast by MTV too—specifically, one of Williams’s color-coded videos. It’s hard to believe these spaces—Tommy’s crib, Sincere’s house, Keisha’s room—all exist in the same world, much less the same movie. Throw in the street-smart details of the script by Williams, Nas, and Anthony Bodden (Sincere notes he lives “not too far from where we grew up, right by the Vets’ hospital,” a tossed-off reference that situates the movie in a real, known New York), the touches of unexpected humor (DMX grunt-singing in the shower!), and you have the a taste of Belly, a film that, taken altogether, comes much closer to what Korine called “a pop poem” than does his own sniggery Spring Breakers.
I am hardly the first or only person to think of “pastiche” when it comes to Williams. The 2007 book Medium Cool: Music Videos from Soundies to Cellphones contains an essay called “Paradoxes of Pastiche: Spike Jonze, Hype Williams, and the Race of the Postmodern Auteur” by one Roger Beebe, which begins by noting that it was only in the early Nineties that the names of music-video directors began to be added to the credits shown at the beginning and end of a video, joining the artist name, song and album title, and record label. This afforded the music-video director of the Nineties an unprecedented level of public name-recognition, which in turn tended to facilitate crossover into feature-film direction. Alex Proyas, Dominic Sena, David Fincher, and F. Gary Gray had already made the jump when Antoine Fuqua’s The Replacement Killers and Williams’s Belly were released in 1998. They were followed across the breach by Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich and Mark Pellington’s Arlington Road in ’99, Tarsem Singh’s The Cell and McG’s Charlie’s Angels in 2000, and Michel Gondry’s Human Nature and Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast in ’01. The transition has since become so commonplace that it hardly bears commenting on.
Hype would appear to be a more than usually publicity-averse figure—he notably declined to be interviewed for a 2008 oral history piece on Belly in King magazine—so I have only a handful of interviews to draw on in composing a biographical sketch. Born Harold Williams, his sobriquet comes from the time when he was a 12-year-old graffiti artist, tagging as “Hype 1” and “Hype Love.” He grew up in Hollis, Queens, went to Andrew Jackson High School in Cambria Heights—also the alma mater of LL Cool J and 50 Cent—and studied film at Adelphi University in Garden City, Long Island. Somewhere around this time he began an apprenticeship at Classic Concepts Video Productions under the tutelage of “Uncle” Ralph McDaniels, whose program Video Music Box has aired on public television in New York since 1984, and is widely considered to have been the precursor for Yo! MTV Raps and BET’s Rap City. “We gave him his first videos,” McDaniels said of Williams, “[the ones] that we didn’t have the time to do.”
These cast-offs, presumably, included the likes of “We Want Money” by B.W.P. (Bytches with Problems), a group, per Wikipedia “well known for their sexually explicit and otherwise misandric lyrics . . . often referred to as a female version of 2 Live Crew,” and Main Source’s “Just Hangin’ Out.” For M.O.P. (Mash Out Posse), the Brooklyn duo of Billy Danze and Lil’ Fame, he shot the video for the 1993 single “How About Some Hardcore,” which appeared on the House Party 3 soundtrack—the clip begins with the intersection of St. Marks and Saratoga Avenues in Brownsville, reminiscent of the scroll along the Linden Boulevard street sign that opens Belly.
At this point in the history of the East Coast hip-hop video was still ruled by the hard-desperate-looking-dudes-in-black-hoodies-mean-mugging-while-hanging-out-around-a-flaming-barrel-on-a-piece-of-waste-ground-that’s-probably-million-dollar-condos-by-now, a mode that Williams both perfected and exceeded in his video for Wu-Tang Clan’s “…Ain’t Nuthing Ta F’ Wit.” Williams was still following trends, though the time wasn’t far off when he would be starting them. The video for Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa,” with Puffy pruning in a hot tub with high sloshed-champagne content, was proudly labeled a Big Dog Films Production, and Williams’ company would slurp up high-profile commissions like so much Welch’s Grape as the rap video continued to develop into something more eccentric, more colorful, more lavish, just plain more.
1997 was Hype Williams’s annus mirabilis, with videos for Busta Rhymes’s “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See,” Missy Elliott’s “The Rain (Sup Dupa Fly),” Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money, Mo Problems” (feat. Puff Daddy, Ma$e), the MTV Music Award–winning “I’ll Be Missing You,” Puff’s cash-in funeral dirge for Biggie, and “Feel So Good,” the coming-out for Ma$e who, no matter what he said, was intended to replace Notorious. Williams was the official court artist during the heyday of Bad Boy Records, who in turn were the official soundtrack of the second Clinton term’s deceptive dot com prosperity. This is about as close as any modern pop artist has come to playing the part of Jacques-Louis David, who developed the official Empire style of Napoleon’s First French Empire. It was no surprise, then, when Variety announced that Williams was to direct the “urban drama” Belly, the first feature film greenlit by Live Entertainment “since its buyout by a Bain Capital–led consortium last year.” This was January of 1998.
Undoubtedly because of the demands of preparing and shooting a feature, Williams’s music video output slackened somewhat that year. His principal persona-building project was for none other than DMX: Née Earl Simmons of Yonkers, X had been kicking around for the better part of a decade—here he is on Mic Geronimo’s “Time to Build” in 1995—when he was finally signed to Def Jam. Williams directed the black-and-white video for X’s major-label debut single “Get at Me Dog,” which was released in February 1998. On-screen text reads “SUNDAY NIGHT / AT THE TUNNEL / NEW YORK CITY / PERFORMING LIVE / DMX,” then DMX growls “Let’s take it back to the streets, motherfucker,” and what follows is three minutes of X threatening to climb out of his drooping overalls while prowling the stage, all gleaming and panther-sleek. (The Tunnel, a legendary NYC nightclub which closed in 2001, is also the scene of the opening heist in Belly. For all I know, film and video might’ve been shot at the same time.) When the accompanying album, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, came out in May, it hit #1 on an unbelievable groundswell of hype, and DMX’s follow-up, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, repeated the feat in December of the same year. While most people under 22 know X in the role of gruff, weird uncle who’s usually in trouble with the law, it is impossible to overstate how huge he was for a minute, sold as the outlaw second coming of Tupac.
…and then there was Belly. Between these two albums, on November 4, 1998, DMX’s screen debut opened. And while it has since attained hood classic cachet on home video, Belly wasn’t a money maker on initial release. It was an ill-starred project from the get-go. Williams argued with execs at Shooting Gallery. Used to run-and-gun improv on video sets, he chafed at the restrictions of a unionized shoot. As the budget was exceeded, script pages went out the window.
The final product, forged in the fires of conflict, is a bit of a mess if judged according to the standards of the well-made film—but of how many fascinating features could this be said? Williams is almost preternaturally good with establishing shots, defamiliarizing urban spaces with wide-angle set-ups whose barrel distortion gives the streets the dimensions of a coliseum, but he fudges the most basic of shot-reverse shots. In a scene where Tommy is getting blunted and talking over a deal with Jamaican drug lord, Lennox (dancehall reggae musician Louie Rankin), there are crucial moments in which we find ourselves looking at Rankin’s ear and an out-of-focus DMX—the coverage, clearly, just wasn’t there.
Not that a better take would necessarily do much to clarify matters. Rankin speaks in a heavy Yardie patois which only becomes clearly decipherable in a few sobering moments. (“I run shit. I kill for nuttin’.”) At times Rankin’s cadence seems to interest Williams more than what he’s saying, as the cutting seems to ride on the beat of his delivery. The exposition is both unclear and overabundant, but the film’s images have a stunning hyperlucidity throughout, and it’s full of vignettes that stick to your brain pan, like Black (Jay Black) rocking back and forth and blubbering on the sofa—“You gonna get yours, B. You gonna get yours, man”—after Tommy has forced him to strip naked for reasons that are as obscure to me as the meaning of the film’s title. Williams also has a Midas touch with action scenes—they aren’t marvels of clarity, but of imagistic indelibility. There’s the Feds’ raid on an Omaha stash house, with Mark (Hassan Johnson) scrambling out the window and running for it soundtracked by the opening of BraveHearts and Nas’s “I Wanna Live” (“We can’t be stopped by the bitch-ass cops…”) Or, later: Method Man, pumped full of buckshot, stumbling into an intersection out of a Nebraska strip club (“The Gilz Nilz”), trading shots with the arriving police—head-to-toe in orange-and-black camo, he’s an easy target—before stumbling into a waiting getaway car and, in a piece of dream-logic, apparently getting away clean. And of course that opening, with an a cappella rendition of Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life” kicking in as DMX steps out of a silver Benz and stomps out a blunt on the sidewalk.
That insert detail is shot from the perspective of the pavement, because Williams loves putting the camera in unlikely places. Not once but twice are gun-battle scenes viewed through the POV of a drugged shooter, the target out-of-focus, indistinct. It’s often difficult to tell what’s going on in Belly, for the film is, literally, gritty and dark. Having just rewatched it on a 35mm print, I can confirm that the “high definition” transfer that has been repackaged every few years on DVD significantly lightens the image. It was shot by cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed, whose most prominent films up to that point (Clockers, He Got Game) had been for Spike Lee. When Williams doesn’t have Sayeed dollying towards a cloud of chronic smoke billowing from a pair of lips in slo-mo, he’s using every gel and filter commercially available in 1998, like a rap game Mario Bava. (DPs usually escape the blame heaped on directors when a movie tanks, but Belly is to date Sayeed’s last fiction feature.)
Is this mere flash and swag, signifying nothing, or is Williams up to something more? I am not alone in believing the latter. In a 2003 piece called “Believe the Hype: Hype Williams and Afrofuturist Filmmaking,” which appeared in the online Australian film journal Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media, Thomas F. Defrantz has it that Williams is meeting the call for a “black visual intonation” (BVI) which black film theorist and cinematographer Arthur Jafa made in a 1992 essay of the same title, suggesting the use of “irregular, nontempered (nonmetronomic) camera rates and frame replication to prompt filmic movement to function in a manner that approximates Black vocal intonation.” With Belly, Defrantz writes, Williams “offers an extended meditation on how movement, musicality, and outrageous style can create a visual experience that extends possibilities for the medium of filmmaking toward the evocation of black visual intonation.” The matching of visual and verbal rhythms is made explicit in the film’s opening, which layers superimpositions in time to the cadence of DMX’s voiceover flow: “I sold my soul to the devil / Price was cheap / It was cold on this level / Twice as deep…” Detractors will point out Williams’s pilfering from Scorsese, but as Scorsese freely confesses that his use of rock ’n’ roll was influenced by Kenneth Anger’s use of Sixties pop in Scorpio Rising, so Williams is building on the methods of both filmmakers in finding a cinematic form for the black vernacular styles of R B and hip-hop. Belly doesn’t succeed on anything like the level of, say, Scorpio Rising or Mean Streets, but the scope of its ambition is what we should demand and applaud of a first-time filmmaker.
Of course, trying to convince the world at large to pay attention to aesthetics is a losing game, especially in these here United States. Magic Johnson, citing Belly’s “overwhelmingly negative and violent depictions of African-Americans,” refused to book the film in his chain of multiplexes in predominantly black neighborhoods, though this hint of controversy failed to generate concurrent box office. Even if we limit our discussion to content, it should be noted that the film’s narrative arc is a kind of Gangsta’s Progress. (Hilarious IMDb plot description: “A pair of vicious black gangsters have spiritual awakenings.”) Following the pattern established in the early cross-cutting between Tommy and Sincere’s domestic lives, the film contrasts the personal journeys of the two men, who switch off carrying voiceover duties, as they drift apart before arriving at the same final destination—raised consciousness. Sincere is the more pensive of the two; driving around Omaha on an out-of-town dope-dealing run with Tommy, he discusses a book on Self-Improvement that he’s been reading by a spiritual leader called the Minister, a book which has him “thinking about a whole new other format,” and wondering about the purpose of life. This prompts the following exchange:
Tommy: “Ain’t no purpose, dog. It’s money. We born to fuckin’ die, man. In the meantime, get money. Fuck a book, man . . . Shit is lovely for me, man. I’m gonna stop when I’m dead, end of story, man. You gots to be a leader, dog. That book is fuckin’ your head up.”
Sincere: “Yo, when’s the last time you read anything, man?”
Tommy: “Never, motherfucker! What you need to start thinking about is your seed, man. ’Cause shorty can’t eat no books, dog.”
DMX hits his lines with the force of a junkyard dog against a chain-link fence, while Nas remains unfazed, slightly catatonic. Even Belly’s admirers tend to take issue with his performance—the man who once said “I never sleep ’cause sleep is the cousin of death” looks dangerously close to nodding off here. That said, playing straight man to an unchecked Id—Charlie to Johnny Boy, to extend the Scorsese comparison—is a thankless job, and some of the taxonomic personality recaps he gives in voiceover are at least pretty funny. (Watkins, for what it’s worth, is always engaging when she’s on-screen—she has an unexpected authority in her lone girl-to-girl dialogue with Hicks, and what she calls her “Valley girl” delivery of the peevish line “Africa’s far!” is a knee-slapper.)
DMX is the more engaging performer, and fittingly he gets the juicier scenes and the more iconic images—for example, the trip to Jamaica where he’s photographed from ankle level while, in the foreground, an anonymous dancer shakes her ass faster than a hummingbird’s flutter. He also shoulders the burden of the most baffling plot development in a film that is full of them. Fresh out of prison, Tommy is recruited by a government operative to infiltrate the Minister’s organization and assassinate him before an important speech scheduled on the eve of the new millennium. (The undercover creep is played by Frank Vincent, who’d appeared in the video for Nas’s “Street Dreams,” a Williams-directed riff on Scorsese’s Casino, in 1996.) Per on-screen text, Tommy is contacted for the job in October of 1999, meaning he has less than three months to penetrate the Minister’s inner sanctum. He not only manages to do this, but in the course of playing his part he accidentally elevates his consciousness, a fact signified by his acquisition of some studious little wire-frame glasses. Tommy still goes to carry out his mission, beholden to the dirty deal he’s made. He gets the jump on his target, but then the Minister delivers an impromptu sermon on “lifestyles” and respecting women and youth drug use to his would-be assassin, who suddenly finds that he can’t pull the trigger—possibly because he has been lulled into a deep slumber.
I kid, I kid. I’m tempted to say that Belly is an altogether more satisfying and successful movie before it starts addressing itself in earnest to The Struggle after a Cecil B. DeMille sin-and-redemption bait-and-switch—but that is one hell of a white-boy thing to say. For example: “I’ve never been a fan of lyrical or socially conscious rap music,” Korine told a Pitchfork interviewer in 2013, after the release of Spring Breakers. “I just like the bass—the thud, the groove, the grimiest shit.” If social consciousness isn’t actually a necessity for your day-to-day survival, it can for sure be a bit of a drag—but for those who don’t have a family safety net and agnès b. to help them get past crack addiction, it’s not so easy to be flippant about it.
If the last act of Belly does falter—and in my wildest flights of apologia, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to convince myself that it doesn’t—it’s because it shows Williams reflecting his critics’ prejudices: the belief that style and substance are separate matters, and that you have to set aside one to get to the other. The Minister’s speech—the scene was allegedly influenced by Williams’s meeting with Louis Farrakhan—dies on the screen not necessarily because the sentiments being expressed are sententious, or because the actor playing the Minister, Ben Chavis, is inadequate, but because for once Williams has failed to find a stylistic analogue for what he wants to express. Perhaps if the budget had held out long enough for Williams to follow Sincere and Tionne to Africa, as had originally been planned, the motherland would’ve provided him with visuals that could make holistic happiness seem like a viable alternative to law-of-the-jungle competitive contempt. As it is, we’re left with a stern finger-wagging.
Williams remained in demand as a video-maker after his Belly ache. His association with the Bad Boy family seemed to go on hiatus after a much-publicized incident surrounding the video for Nas and Puff Daddy’s 1999 “Hate Me Now,” but their Golden Age was already past, and Williams had new top-dollar clientele knocking at his door, reaching some kind of apotheosis with Jay-Z and UGK’s 2000 video for “Big Pimpin’,” a hedonistic, white-letterboxed trip to the Carnival in Trinidad. By then, Williams’s style had already reached the level of ubiquity that leant itself to parody—as early as 1998, it was sent up in the New Jersey scum-metal band Monster Magnet’s video for their song “Space Lord.” The shock of the new has faded, but in recent years Williams has notably collaborated with both West and Nicki Minaj, his video for Jennifer Lopez’s “Booty” coming like a reproof to youngblood Colin Tilley’s for “Anaconda.” As Alex Pappademas notes in a fine 2012 overview of Williams’s career for Grantland, he has established a niche as “the go-to director for rappers and R&B singers looking to, um, pay homage to a major motion picture in a video.”
What has been lacking are further major motion pictures for Williams, though plenty have been threatened. Though an adept live-action cartoonist—see Missy Elliott and Da Brat’s “Sock it To Me”—he lost the Fat Albert movie, as well as Speed Racer. There were rumors of Thrilla, a 3-D zombie film that would’ve returned him to Jamaica, and a sci-fi epic called MotherShip (the implicit P-Funk reference supporting the notion of his Afrofuturist connection). In 2011, Variety reported that Williams was going to direct a $28 million erotic thriller titled Lust, with a screenplay by “Sloppy” Joe Eszterhas—something to do with revenge porn and Miami real estate. It hasn’t been heard from since. Williams has collaborated on a number of videos with Kanye, including the short film “Runaway,” which Williams wrote and directed. In late February of this year, West premiered a trailer for a forthcoming feature tied to his album Yeezus on his website, which ended with the promise of a “Yeezus film directed by Hype Williams coming to theaters.” To date, no film has appeared.
Let us assume for the moment that Williams is a “difficult,” even insubordinate personality. It would still be an unassailable fact that he is possessed of an extraordinary visual imagination, and it’s a crime that such a talent should see so many projects left in preproduction limbo while a pasty nothing like McG, who has never shown even a daub of talent and whose movies have consistently underperformed since 2009, still has (for the time being) a career as a feature filmmaker. Of course, if Williams was dying to make movies, he could—like Tarsem, who pumps his commercial and video profits back into his consistently unprofitable productions—and it may be that he could take or leave the long-form. But oh, the difference to us!