When people bring up the films Scarface and Fight Club, the conversation usually revolves around how fratbros and wannabe gangsters completely miss (or willfully ignore) the message, almost as much as it evokes comments about the technical craft, over the top performances, memorable scenes and entertainment value of the films themselves. When I think of these films, though, I think of how much 1998's Belly should be part of this conversation, but never gets its due. Perhaps because no one but a handful of black people saw it, and perhaps because, just like those aforementioned films, the message also went over most of the audience members' heads. The difference here being, since there's no Oscar buzz-worthy actors or esteemed director at the helm, people dismiss the film as trashy Blaxploitation. But that couldn't be further from the truth.
On paper, Belly is just another boilerplate crime drama about how a life of street crime can only end one way, where eventually even the mightiest must fall. But in its execution lies perhaps one of the greatest displays of style as substance in contemporary cinema. The movie was directed by Hype Williams, who gained notoriety throughout the nineties for an impressive body of work in hip-hop music videos. His cinematic acumen and use of tools and techniques such as fish eye lenses, wide ratio shots, tracking shots and starkly contrasting color palettes practically revolutionized the way music videos were made. Through the lens of Hype Williams, the stories of the streets were displayed to the world with a vibrancy like they had never been seen before. I believe that his work in visualizing the fantastic music of that era was nearly as important to the cultural explosion of hip-hop into mainstream culture as was the music itself. With his first (and only) feature film, he was able to bring all those cinematic, musical and street elements together into a highly polished kinetic collage. The opening scene of this film not only summarizes Hype's style and a lot of what the film contains, but remains among the most vivid and memorable opening sequences I've ever witnessed:
A lot of black movies in the '90s had the really annoying habit of shoehorning hip-hop and R&B artists into the scenes as ancillary or supporting characters, perhaps hoping that if the audience saw their favorite artists in the trailers, they would be more inclined to buy a ticket at the theater. Unfortunately, most of the artists, though talented in their respective musical fields, couldn't act themselves out of a paper bag, and the films suffered greatly from their inclusion. The genius in Belly's casting is that the two leads, hip-hop legends Nasir “Nas” Jones and Earl “DMX” Simmons, are essentially just playing themselves. While this might seem lazy on the surface, it's important to understand that the well-established musical personas of each artist - the hard yet wise street sage Nas and the unpredictably outspoken rough rider that is DMX - allow the audience to buy into their respective characters as the calm and calculated Sincere and the volatile live wire Bundy almost immediately.
Sincere provides most of the narration with a frame of reason and introspection, while the monstrous Bundy blazes through a violent path on his way to becoming the king of the streets, leaving death and destruction in his wake. I appreciate the effects of letting DMX absolutely maul the scenery in his own natural voice much more now after seeing him try “real” acting years later in the not-very-good martial arts joints Cradle 2 the Grave and Exit Wounds; in those he is ridiculously miscast and stilted. Not every rapper-turned-actor can be as good as Ice-T and Ice Cube, but no one, I think, could have pulled off the character of Bundy like DMX. Beyond the two leads, there are other musical artists in the film who actually do a decent-to-very-good job onscreen. Tionne Watkins (T-Boz of TLC fame) plays Sincere's wife, a voice of reason and stability in the mounting chaos. But the real pleasant surprise is seeing Clifford “Method Man” Smith, of the rap super-group The Wu-tang Clan, absolutely killing it in his role as the vicious hired muscle Shameek. In this, one of his earliest roles, you could see the workings of a real screen star, and he has proven himself in the years since in a list of respectable roles (most white people will recognize him from his most notable role as Cheese on The Wire). The musical casting reaches even greater thematic cohesion with the inclusion of Lenny Rankin, a well-renowned Jamaican dancehall reggae artist, as the Jamaican drug lord Ox. Most people remember “Say hello to my little friend!” as the go-to gangster quote, but for me, nothing will ever top a stoned out Yardie with a pearl finish AK-47 shouting “WHO WAN TEST ME?! I am the Original Jamaican Don Dada!!”
It should be stated outright that although Williams had a concise vision and the leading men were perfectly suited to enact the story, the film was plagued with production problems. The barebones script that they did have was subject to multiple rewrites, Hype butted heads with producers throughout the filming, some of the cast who were not used to the professional rigors of acting would show up drunk and/or late, if at all, and the already meager budget for what he had planned was cut about ¾ of the way into filming. Although a more discerning critic can spot out all the objective faults in the construction of the film because of those problems (Belly was critically savaged upon release), none of that ruined the movie for me. However, perhaps the greatest hurdle of all toward appreciating Belly is when the big message comes through at the end. Some would argue that the movie spends its entire time glamorizing brutal violence, obscene sex, gratuitous drug use and an overall nihilistic, self-destructive lifestyle that has led to the deaths of so many of my people, so much so that by the end of the film, any message against it is all drowned out in a haze of blunt smoke and blinding strobe lights. To me, the hip-hop music video style of glamorization was vital to the message.
It has always been strange to me how black youth appropriate the ideologies and aesthetics of an Italian-American playing a caricature of a Cuban immigrant, though no less strange is the appropriation of both Italian-American Mafia and South American cartel aesthetics into their street personas (Nas "Escobar", Beanie Siegel, Capone-N-Noriega, Jay-Z's earlier Mafioso persona and his Roc-la Familia crew moniker, etc...). Because of this, I think that in order for the message to really set in, it was important for the message to be re-contextualized with black faces using black words in a black setting to definitively show just how much of a hand we have in our own destruction. Moreover, when the end conceit comes, all the previous scenes of stylized criminal activity flash before our eyes, juxtaposed with the monologue of a minister character who is literally preaching to the audience why all this stuff is bad. It really is one of the most blatantly obvious “Ending Is the Conceit” finales I have ever witnessed, yet still it gets shrugged off as too little, too late.
I have been wrestling with a torrent of thoughts and emotions recently in the wake of the Ferguson, Missouri, shooting. This was just one of several articles I drafted up to help me work through them. One of the things I had to deal with was my stances about our own role in our continued survival. An unjust system has affected our very psyche as much as it has afflicted our mortal safety. I don’t wanna come off as another one of these DeVry bow tie professors trying to put some of the blame for this on ourselves. Rather, though the struggle continues, I think one important thing to remember is to not fall into the abyss of self-loathing and apathy. As Michael Brown's mother lamented; "Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many. Because you bring them down to this type of level, where they feel like they don't got nothing to live for anyway." For all its gaudiness, the message in Belly, about the struggle to overcome our sense of nihilistic despair, has always stuck with me. I hope that those out there who never heard of or never got a chance to experience this film the first time around will be able to appreciate it for what it attempted to do, flaws and all.
I really do fucking love this movie. It resonates with me on a very visceral and emotional, and somewhat personal, level; parts of the movie were filmed in my own neighborhood in Jamaica, Queens and the neighboring Hollis area. (I've been getting my haircuts at The Hut barbershop for years, which is the location of a scene where Sincere gets attacked....and which is also a block over from where Jam Master Jay of Hip-Hop Pioneers Run DMC was murdered.) While so much footage you see of The Hood in movies, TV, news and the papers portrays it as a drab, desolate, washed-out wasteland - and it definitely can be - I'm still amazed at how Hype Williams was able to use his cinema to portray what is often very hard for me to describe to others: in all our hard times, sorrow and danger, our home can also feel alive with color and vibrant with excitement. Moreover, as the years have passed and my finer appreciation of cinema has grown, I am able to recognize where my indulgence ends and thematic resonance begins. I hope others will be able to accept it on those merits as well.
VyceVictus is an Active Duty Service member, Veteran, Amateur Internet Writer & Comedian, and Badass Digest faithful devotee. Graduate of the School Of Hard Knocks with a Masters in Chest Punching and Minor in Mean Muggin' White People.
As a young girl, a brown-haired product of the 1980s with a taste for the musical and a thirst for adventure, I identified with Disney heroine Belle as “my” princess. Scrappier than others — or a badass, as I would now proudly call her in my 30s — Belle had a certain spark that I identified with.
In the early 1990s, screenwriter Linda Wolverton was inspired by the women’s rights movement when creating the character of Belle. An independent dreamer, a seeker of adventure and — gasp! — a bookworm, Belle looked for more beyond her small village and did not hesitate to storm into a strange castle to save her father. I’ll say it again: badass.
Princesses have gotten plenty of criticism over the years. Some say they give young girls unattainable standards of beauty and ideas of romance that simply don’t exist. But I never looked to characters like Belle for their looks, never compared myself to them, with their impossibly tiny waists.
Through middle school and high school, I was never one of the cool girls in halter tops who all the boys liked. Instead, I had a wide range of old navy tech vests (and man, I owned it; those things were comfy).
Here was my takeaway from these animated characters: Be outgoing and take risks; belt out some sweet jams to keep your spirits up; and always fight for your family. That was the tune I was hearing them sing. So, yeah, I thought Belle, Mulan and Ariel were some pretty cool characters to learn from.
I grew up in a small town, and I, like the Disney darling Belle, felt the exploration itch for quite some time. In my late 20s, I uprooted my life, removing myself from the complacent. I fueled my sense of adventure — and never looked back.
I may not have done it with a horse and a cool cape, but that’s still pretty darned Belle to me.
As for that whole “unobtainable love” thing? Sure, between watching “Beauty and the Beast” as a child and now being a “Bachelor” super fan, I just assume all love stories contain some sort of rose situation. And I wouldn’t mind getting caught talking to kitchen ware if I could get half a second that felt as magical as the ballroom scene in “Beauty and the Beast.” A big guy with his facial hair on point? My friends would tell you that’s just my type. (Maybe Belle actually taught me a thing or two about choosing a man, too.)
A couple of years ago, when I first heard the rumblings of a live-action remake of the classic Disney film, I was apprehensive. Then, when I saw the first official trailer on Facebook, I was crying within seconds. Granted, I’m an easy crier, but it was beautiful and moving. However, I still felt like, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, ya know?
When the time finally came to see the film this week in a pre-release screening, I was nervous. Would this new version ruin the nostalgia of this classic tale I have known my entire life? Could I accept Emma Watson as my Belle? Could she even hold a tune?
The film opened with a dance in the castle of the Prince, played by Dan Stevens, all powdered wigs and twirling gowns filling the screen. We learn how he, fixated with outer beauty, becomes the Beast.
I held my breath. The moment of truth was here. A cottage door swung open and Watson began to sing my favorite song from the film, “Belle.” (I just always loved the “Bonjour! Bonjour!” So darned catchy.)
As much as I wanted to hate this remake, with all of its colorful twirling petticoats and harmonies, it dawned on me. Belle would rather choose a life as a crazy cat lady than marry some pompous turd. I remembered why she was so empowering to me, and some of the young ones in the crowd may be having the same feelings as I did as a kid.
They might be discovering their own little piece of Belle.
I needed to stop comparing, and start embracing.
Once the action picked up, as Belle’s papa raced though the dark, eerie forest, my heart began to race. As each familiar character was revealed — LeFou’s comedic camaraderie, Lumiere’s knack for the theatrical and Chip’s childish innocence — I was hooked.
I let myself go. When Watson swung over Philippe and rode off without a single fear or hesitation to save her father, I accepted her as my real-life Belle. I fell into the world that Disney had brought to life, vibrant and fantastical.
I don’t know if it was the impact of the live action version or the glass of Pinot Grigio, but I was even appreciating the film in new ways. The remake had brought a nuance of adult humor to the tale — with LeFou and Gaston’s friendship, and with Papa’s quirkiness — that did not go unnoticed.
By “Be Our Guest” (though a bit over the top), I could tell everyone in the theater was right there with me. The clapping and laughing gave it away: We were in this together.
We all know how the rest of the film goes: Belle tries to escape and the Beast saves her, then she in turn saves him and love saves them all. They dance, everyone cries and in the end the hairy nerd defeats the arrogant jerk to win the heart of the girl, proving that inner beauty triumphs.
More girls at bars on the weekends should be taking notes on this.
By the end, I had cried at the beautiful and iconic ballroom scene, had gasped at the fight between the Beast and Gaston, and had truly allowed myself to escape. Not until Lumiere revealed himself as Gandalf (Ian McKellen) did I return to the real world and reveled in the beautiful whirlwind I had just experienced.
When it was over, I walked away with a new love for an old fairytale, and not just because it proved to appreciate a good beard. A tale of love, friendship, family and courage, I felt reassured in my belief that cheering for princesses is not silly when they are as fearless, caring and powerful as Belle.
And I am excited for a new batch of little ones to begin their adventures, too.