Belly is a 1998 American crime drama film written and directed by music video director Hype Williams, in his film directing debut. Filmed in New York City, the film stars rappers DMX and Nas, alongside Taral Hicks, Method Man, and R&B singer T-Boz.
In 1999 Queens, New York City, young street criminals Tommy “Buns” Brown (DMX) and Sincere (“Sin”) (Nas), along with associates Mark and Black, murder five people during a violent nightclub robbery. After celebrating with the gang, Sincere returns home to his girlfriend Tionne (Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins) and infant daughter Kenya.
The following morning, Tommy asks Sincere to help him sell a new form of heroin. Sincere, who has begun having second thoughts about his life of crime, reluctantly agrees. Tommy then visits Ox, a wealthy Jamaican drug lord, who agrees to obtain the heroin on the condition that Tommy repay him with a favor at a later date.
In Mark’s grandmother’s basement, the gang convenes to discuss the nascent drug operation; one of Tommy’s associates, Knowledge (Oliver “Power” Grant), will be involved in the operation. Knowledge tells Tommy over the phone that Black had been talking about robbing Sincere to get his larger share of the loot from the nightclub. Enraged, Tommy forces Black to strip naked in front of the others, firing a handgun wildly into the floor.
The gang begins transporting heroin from Queens to Omaha, Nebraska, where they begin to overrun the local drug business. Big Head Rico (Tyrin Turner), an Omaha dealer, informs the police of their activities. The resulting raid at their stash-house ends with Mark’s death and Knowledge’s arrest. Knowledge angrily realizes that Tommy will not bail him out of jail, and calls Shameek, a.k.a. Father Sha (Method Man), to both infiltrate Rico’s gang and kill Tommy. Shameek confronts Rico at a strip club and guns him down when he tries to flee. He is shot by the bartender and stumbles out the club, evading the police.
Tommy travels to Jamaica and repays Ox by killing Sosa, the son of a local drug lord. Back home, Tommy’s girlfriend Keisha (Taral Hicks) is arrested by police and later bailed out by Tionne. Tommy finds out about the raid and leaves town. Pelpa, a close friend and associate of Sosa’s, finds out that Ox ordered the hit and sends a hit squad to kill him in his home. Ox is able to kill most of the hitmen before he dies at the hands of a female assassin.
Sincere prepares to leave the drug trade and move his family to Africa, planning to leave on New Year’s Day 2000. Meanwhile, while laying low in Atlanta, Tommy instigates an argument between Wise and LaKid, two marijuana dealers, which ends with both men to drawing their guns and LaKid shooting Wise. After being arrested over the shooting, Tommy is coerced by a shadowy organization with unclear motives into assassinating a Black Muslim leader, Rev. Saviour, (Benjamin Chavis) during a sermon on New Year’s Eve. Tionne comes home and finds herself confronted by Shameek, who demands the whereabouts of Sincere and Tommy.
While Sincere talks to a friend (AZ) outside a barbershop, Black shoots him in the leg as revenge for his earlier humiliation. Sincere kills Black and his accomplice in self-defense before fleeing the scene. On New Year’s Eve, Tommy confronts Rev. Saviour before his scheduled speech and points his gun at him. Saviour convinces Tommy not to go through with his mission, even though this will put his life at risk.
A tearful Tommy agrees, and the two men embrace. Shameek visits Keisha’s home, in the hopes of finding Tommy there. He assaults Keisha, who gets hold of Shameek’s gun and shoots him in the face. Sincere, now in Africa with his family, reflects on recent events and is happy to start a new life.
While filming Belly, the production was mired by frequent clashes between Williams and the producers, budget constraints, and cast members showing up drunk, high, or late. Much of the $3 million budget was used up on the film’s opening scene, which was filmed in the former Tunnel nightclub in New York City. The film’s costume designer, June Ambrose, recalled that Williams wanted the film’s “shiny look” to “forecast what the hip-hop genre’s gonna look like in the millennium.” Williams revealed that Jay-Z was considered for the film’s title role.
When Belly was released in the United States in November 1998, some critics condemned it for its demeaning depictions of young Black or African American men. Furthermore, the Magic Johnson Theatres, a film theater chain then owned by the former basketball player Magic Johnson, banned the film from being shown on its screens due to “negative and violent depictions of African Americans.”
The film was poorly received by critics, scoring a 14% on Rotten Tomatoes from 35 reviews. Although it was generally praised for its highly stylized “noir-like” visual design and cinematography, it was criticized for what was seen as a weak plot. Since then the film has developed a cult following. Clayton Purdom of The A.V. Club described Belly as a “far from a perfect film, but it radiates talent, both from Williams and the musicians he captured at their commercial and artistic peak.” Khris Davenport of Complex doubled down on the film’s legacy and influence, writing that Williams “blazed a trail in black cinema that some filmmakers are only just now starting to understand and build upon.”