I’ve seen Euphoria described as 10 minutes of plot and 40 minutes of music video because of its commitment to great needledrops, excellent score by Labrinth and overall focus on visual rather than verbal quality. If that style appeals to you, there’s a movie you ought to see with a similar ratio of cool angles and dope music to coherent plot. Way back in the distant past of 1998, there was a film called Belly directed by prolific music video director Harold “Hype” Williams.
Williams had been making music videos since 1991, and is still making them today, working with many of your favorite hip-hop and R&B artists, in addition to musicians like Jessica Simpson, Dan Balan and Adam Lambert, among others. Alongside Anthony Bodden and Nas (who would co-star in the film), Williams crafted a story before penning the screenplay himself. The movie has plenty of writing flaws compounded by uneven acting. Too many ideas happen too quickly, covering 11 months’ worth of events—that could have been spread over several years—in just 92 minutes. Yet, while the editing adds to some of the pacing issues, it also contributes to the distinct visual style which has proved to be very much ahead of its time.
The plot of Belly gets a little convoluted, but it’s essentially about the divergent paths of two very successful New York criminals, Tommy “Buns” Bundy (DMX) and Sincere (Nas). After Buns sees a news story about an extremely potent new form of heroin, the two get involved in the drug trade in the Midwest, and have their operation tipped-off to the cops by a jealous rival (Tyrin Turner’s Big Head Rico). Sincere reconsiders his lifestyle while Buns sinks lower into it. Sincere gradually moves away from a life of violence to do right by his wife Tionne (T-Boz from TLC, one of the film’s better actors) while his narration evokes Five Percenter/Nation of Islam rhetoric cribbed from the writings of Reverend Saviour AKA “The Minister” (longtime Civil Rights activist Benjamin Chavis, who at the time was Benjamin Muhammed).
On the other end, Buns ends up acting as a hitman for his connect, the Jamaican drug lord Lennox AKA Ox (dancehall legend Louie Rankin), and then becomes the target of he and Sincere’s incarcerated former remote partner Knowledge (Oliver Grant) who hires Shameek AKA Father Sha (Method Man) to hunt down Rico, Buns and Sincere—endangering Tionne as well as Buns’ live-in girlfriend Kisha (Taral Hicks). Lennox gets killed in a scene that is very clearly copied from De Palma’s Scarface but also feels a bit like a ‘70s action movie. Prolific mob movie actor Frank Vincent plays a shady government agent that finds Buns when he’s on the lam and blackmails him into infiltrating the Nation of Islam and assassinating The Minister. Belly ends when The Minister, in turn, convinces Buns to put his gun down so that the people can hear his message.
What stands out above the plot is the cinematography, highlighted immediately by an opening scene filmed at what was then The Tunnel in New York. Buns and Sincere enter a topless nightclub accompanied by Mark (Hassan Johnson) and pull off a smash-and-grab with the aid of guns planted in the bathroom like The Godfather. But what’s impressive about the film, and the scene, isn’t that it reminds us of superior films (Nas’ narration is one part Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, one part Tobey Maguire over-explaining the worst version of The Great Gatsby). It’s the use of black lights, slow motion and strobes in this opening sequence that gives it the gusto of a hip-hop video from the late 1990s or early 2000s, and Belly is replete with pans, tracking shots and semi-static single frames or slow-zooms that evoke the then-contemporary style that Williams had such a hand in crafting. Much of Belly’s budget went into that opening sequence, which probably contributes to the acting problems later in the film—not enough money for reshoots. Still, the director’s vision of hip-hop at the millennium shines through. The now-familiar shot, low on the sidewalk, looking up toward an actor as he walks away, giving grandeur to plain street clothes; the glamorous slow-zoom on a woman lying in sheets; the use of blue to highlight dark skin tones and color interiors—all stylish techniques my mind associates with Bad Boy, Def Jam and Missy Elliot even though the record shows the influence went far beyond them. Belly is visually distinct and fixed to a point in time while presaging a lot of what we see today.
This is most obvious with the connection to media like Euphoria and the tradition of the music-video-as-narrative picture. Euphoria jumps around nearly as much, but is assisted in not feeling quite as jumbled by way of a bigger budget and being spread across two seasons (and counting). While the first season relies largely on rap songs for episode titles (before expanding to different musical genres, poems, artworks and novels in the second season), the actual needledrops vary and much of the cinematography more closely reflects the visual style of indie rock and electro-pop music videos. As in Belly, neon is part of the color palette, but so are spotlights centering a kissing couple with browns and slate grays in the background. When leaning on instrumentals rather than lyrical tracks, as in the carnival episode of the first season, the camera can take on horror-adjacent tracking and close-ups as easily as it pines for melodrama. High-intensity light is shaded and shadowed to give the show the alternating dinge and wash-out that sometimes distinguish “prestige television.” Euphoria alternates between fuzzy and clear imagery, contrasting the dream-like with the real, sometimes even added authenticity by the graininess of real film. Moreover, the narrator’s consistent breaking of the fourth wall or the filmmakers’ use of magical realism and visual metaphor yells “music video” in ways that remind me of something like Red Jumpsuit Apparatus’ “Face Down”. Euphoria also serves as a staging area for performance art, like the season one finale that felt like a cross between interpretive dance and a college marching band halftime performance, while series composer Labrinth pulled visuals from the show for “Still Don’t Know My Name”, and essentially had another music video in the church dream sequence in episode four of season two.
Looking back decades earlier, Belly opens and closes with DMX doing spoken word, but also incorporates D’Angelo’s “Devil’s Pie” to highlight its themes leading into the credits. The iconic opening is highlighted by Soul II Soul’s “Back To Life.” The soundtrack includes Ja Rule, Gang Starr, Noreaga, Jay-Z, the LOX, Memphis Bleak—the music underscores Belly’s mood and tone while grounding it in the late ‘90s. And the way that music video editing can interrupt a narrative shines through as brightly as the music: Frequent cuts away from scenes that need time to breathe; scenes that could be—but aren’t necessarily—metaphor (childhood Buns doing a satanic ritual in his home) or approach breaking the fourth wall (Keisha smirking at the ceiling/camera from bed after Buns leaves).
Belly’s plot hinted at an opioid epidemic that began in the late 1990s but continues today across the U.S. Like Euphoria, Belly isn’t specific about naming Purdue Pharma and, unlike Euphoria, it was released before opium poppy ballooned in Afghanistan or U.S. soldiers were guarding poppy fields. While a note on Big Pharma or the U.S. guarding opium poppy would likely contribute to the Minister’s sermon about systems being content to empower the people to destroy themselves, even without it the film reflects today’s understanding of the Midwest as bearing the brunt of the opioid epidemic.
While Euphoria looks at the end-user community impact of drug use—the way drug addiction can destroy people’s families, communities, and lives—Belly shows that only briefly. Heroin users are seen only for a second, being sold drugs, while people drinking and smoking serve as the backdrop to Rev. Saviour’s sermon. The magical realism and visual metaphor in Euphoria stems in part from dream and hallucination sequences born of drug use by the protagonist, Rue. In the second season, Rue dives deeper into opioids as she struggles with unresolved grief and suicidal thoughts, venturing closer to death as she runs into the sort of people Buns and Sincere might have ended up making deals with if their lives hadn’t changed. While Saviour only examined the problem in a broad and sort of vague Millenarian way, he would not be surprised to see the damage caused by the opioid crisis or other fallout of the drug war and economic decline in late capitalism. The CDC reports that, in the U.S. as a whole, between 1999 and 2018, opioid deaths more than tripled, from 6.1 per 100,000 to 20.7 per 100,000. In Nebraska specifically, where Buns and Sincere push heroin in Belly, nearly 35% of overdose deaths in 2018 involved opioids.
Belly’s musical stunt-casting also feels ahead of its time, even if it wasn’t the first movie to do such a thing, and likely came about as part of Williams working with his personal and professional connections to tell an authentic story. The movie brims with rap stars (Crucial Conflict and Ghostface Killah have cameos, while longtime Nas collaborator AZ plays Sincere’s friend; adding to a cast already including DMX, Nas, T-Boz, Method Man and Vita), a few dancehall reggae stars (Sean Paul and Mr. Vegas appear as themselves), and a multi-decade Civil Rights activist that was once Executive Director of the NAACP and was—at the time—ministering Malcolm X’s old mosque in Harlem.
After Belly, Williams signed a two-year first-look deal with New Line and began serious negotiations with MTV for an animation project, but nothing materialized from either venture. He was briefly attached to Speed Racer, but Warner Bros. ended up giving it to the Wachowskis, who took the opportunity to express their own visionary style. In 2010, he wrote Kanye’s Runaway short film and in 2011 he was named to direct Lust, an erotic thriller by Joe Esterzhas, but that similarly never saw the light of day. It’s hard to tell if, more than a decade on, he has any more interest in creating a feature film or television. He’s never stopped making music videos, and last year he took to the Palm Springs Frank Sinatra house to reinterpret some of photographer Slim Aaron’s work for Jay-Z’s cannabis brand Monogram—so he’s still interested in dabbling with other media. As Euphoria demonstrates that adapting music video sensibilities can still work effectively in modern dramatic productions, Williams might find there’s an audience ready-made for his style today.
The visionary and imperfect Belly didn’t get a fair shake when it came out. Williams clashed with producers and went over budget. The movie was blocked out of some screens, preemptively condemned and pigeonholed as a hood movie that poorly represented Black men, while its actual message calls for peace and self-improvement—even if it is from a limited, spiritualist perspective. It may not be an all-time great movie. It’s got too many plates spinning in its plot and it could have been better acted and edited. However, Belly is noteworthy for its cultural prescience and visionary style, and the success of Euphoria proves that the world is ready for Williams to return to feature-length filmmaking.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.