A prompt, a parameter, a choreography, Black One Shot (b.O.s.) has been our ongoing concentration on the art of blackness. We value the complications, ambiguities, and ambivalences on which the art of blackness thrives. As we’ve said, our physics of black study amplifies the critical resonance of objects (centripetal) over the insistence on what objects must do (centrifugal). X = Object love + art of blackness criticism ≅ disassociate, distend, demand, refract, rejoice. Solve for X in no more than 1000 words.
b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2022 for five consecutive weeks. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Alexandra Kingston-Reese and Wiktoria Tunska.
—Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)
A clip from the film’s opening, an exhilarating action sequence that condenses virtually all of the stylistic flourishes that appeared in Williams’s hip-hop music videos.
Even when it’s vibrant red, bubblegum pink, or brilliant white, Hype Williams’s Belly (1998) is so black it’s electric blue. The film relishes the uncertain point where race and color overlap. Occupying the anxious and irreconcilable space of blackness, Belly expresses hip-hop visual culture’s messiness. I’m not saying Belly is poorly composed. Rather, the film displays a mischievous lack of discretion that causes problems for others.1 Belly is messy because it is indifferent to a fragile optimism inherent in whiteness’s relationship with cinema. The deeply saturated film takes pleasure in the descent into illegible blackness, where black space is never entirely defined or contained by the pressures placed upon it. Depressed but not dispirited, Belly reconfigures the affective spatiality of anti-blackness.2
Figure 1: Big (Tryin Turner), a rival dealer, sets a trap for Shameek (Method Man) under a strip club’s red lights. Belly (Hype Williams, 1998), frame grab. Figure 2: Tommy’s underage girlfriend Kionna (LaVita Raynor) takes a call from Tommy’s live-in girlfriend Keisha (Taral Hicks) in her pink bedroom. Belly (Hype Williams, 1998), frame grab. Figure 3: Sincere sits in Tommy’s modernist black and white home beneath a photograph by Thierry Le Gouès. Belly (Hype Williams, 1998), frame grab. Figure 4: Sincere, Tommy and the rest of their crew enter a black-lit (blue) strip club in the heist scene that opens the film. Belly (Hype Williams, 1998), frame grab.
Belly follows hot-headed Tommy (DMX) and aptly named Sincere (Nas), two friends who eventually learn crime does not pay. It’s a well-worn story that formally gestures to equally familiar aesthetic histories including film noir, sensitometric experiments with dark skin, and an esteemed lineage of high contrast black art.3 Stalled in its racial and chromatic blackness, Belly seems reluctant to move on to a more enlightening arc. For instance, at the end of the film Sincere announces he’s left New York City’s criminal underworld for Africa (“I felt like the sky was a different color blue, the trees a different color green”), but contradicting this lush description, the voiceover accompanies a shot of the night sky in Times Square. The image cannot make the journey with him, so the audio and visual tracks occupy two different places, one in hesitant anticipation of the other. Recognizing this troubling lack of forward movement (narrative, aesthetic, or racial), one reviewer worried, “a mountain of style buries a molehill of wishful thinking in Hype Williams’s film Belly[…] The film draws to a close with an eloquent plea for change in the new millennium, but fighting the emphases of Williams’s style, the message amounts to too little, too late.”4
It’s true. Belly is stuck in superimpositions, converging storylines and clichés, slow motion’s sticky temporality, and the foreshortened look of Williams’s signature wide-angle lens that sink the film into crushing inevitability. There, the film finds the uncanny overlap between its narrative pressures and the defining technology of the moving image, the visual effect of pressing chromatic blackness to the background, cut, and the edge of the frame.5 As if it were a constitutive cinematic element, it seems the film must include the familiar downfall of a Black man attempting “one last job.” For instance, as Tommy and Sincere unknowingly drive through rival territory the camera is affixed to the hood of the car but, without a polarizer, the highlights on their skin, the visible curve of the wide-angle lens, and the reflection of trees and powerlines on the windshield obscure the characters.6 Still, the camera remains fixed on the men and their blackness that converge in and as the shot’s vanishing point. Similarly, their stillness creates a backdrop for the mirrored mise-en-scène and the illusion of tree branches racing past and toward the car. From beneath the image, they cannot see that their surroundings are putting their fate in motion and Sincere can only narrate this point in the past tense (“little did we know…”). In this moment, Belly seems unwilling or unable to get over its blackness and, as a result, an otherwise unremarkable setting is transformed into the surreal experience of Driving While Black.7 In other words, that space visualizes a black affective sociality shared amongst people and images that know what will happen next, even in darkness.
Figure 5: Tommy and Sincere are filmed from outside the car in a glossy shot that resembles similar Williams’s music videos, particularly Mase’s “Feels So Good” (1997). Figure 6: Close up of Sincere with the reflected image of blurred tree-branches as the car speeds through the street. Belly (Hype Williams, 1998), frame grab.
Conceding the possibility of progress, but also anticipating the end, Belly flattens affective depression (the doomed characters) and spatial depression (the congestion created by Williams’s stylistic excess). It’s a subtle shift that declines the positive outlook denied Black people and black art without fixating on imaging black pain, which is already exceedingly visible in the world and this film. Instead, discontinuous layers of sound, image, and color gels render a formal gathering that takes place around the refusal to reconcile blackness as an experience of being stuck and as style.8 More simply, if being buried beneath a “mountain” of Williams’s artistic flourishes creates a depressive impasse, at least we’re caught in the same place together. It’s like finding an “anti-social, social club.”9 In fact, if Belly showing off all its blackness (Black people and unlit images) does not make people feel good that is not a problem for the film. Instead, it seems the problem is that black cinema’s “burden of representation” has always been the responsibility to shoulder and conceal cinema’s depression, a toxic reliance on the violence of disentangling and instrumentalizing the many facets of blackness.10
Figure 7: As they enter the club, Tommy and his crew are barely visible. The low light only reflects the textures of the scene: shiny leather jackets, smooth bald heads, glimmering chains, and the burning end of Tommy’s cigarette. Belly (Hype Williams, 1998), frame grab.
Blackness as a color, an identity, and a narrative arc is overdetermined and, thus, depressed. But, when blackness is everything and therefore everywhere, it’s also messy. After critics argued that the film was visually and tonally too dark and, ultimately, too obvious, it seems disingenuous to be concerned about redemption also coming “too little, too late.” In other words, a pervasive expression of blackness, resigned to negativity can still betray the white liberal logic that feigns surprise when it discovers the Black characters’ fate or the role of antiblackness in the history and technology of this medium. Expressing affective depression in space does not resolve blackness, rather it exposes and gives form to the healthy and unhealthy attachments around it, like the knowledge shared by those who live in color and the toxic positivity that negates that knowledge. Thus, whether we describe the light in Belly as underexposed or its graphic violence as overexposed, the film brings cinematic blackness—a technology, history of production practices, narrative traditions, and an institution—into clear view.
This is one of four essays from the nineteenth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays from this transmission here:
Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie have been collaborating since 2017 come hell or high water. Lisa is Associate Professor of Art History at Whitman College and wrote Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (2015) and most recently, “Unknowing Wastelands in Noah Purifoy’s Desert Art Museum.” Michael will start in the fall of 2022 as Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University. He is author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (2016) and most recently, consulting producer for the Criterion Collection release of Shaft.
- This use of the word “messy” should be attributed to the young, Black, and queer people who consistently shape and remake every aspect of our popular culture without citation. The phrase has likely entered the wider vernacular though reality television, where “being messy” is a serious social infraction and therefore a vital part of many storylines.
- This claim is inspired by and aiming to contribute to the writing and art that aims to depathologize negative affects by making the isolating effects of anti-blackness a shared problem. See Kemi Adeyemi, “Straight Leanin’: Sounding Black Life at the Intersection of Hip-Hop and Big Pharma,” Sounding Out! (blog), September 21, 2015, https://soundstudiesblog.com/2015/09/21/hip-hop-and-big-pharma; Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling(Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2012); Jasmine Elizabeth Johnson, “b.O.s. 6.4: In My Feelings,” ASAP/J(August 13, 2018): https://asapjournal.com/b-o-s-6-4-in-my-feelings-jasmine-elizabeth-johnson/; Christine Ross, The Aesthetics of Disengagement: Contemporary Art and Depression (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).
- This vast, interdisciplinary tradition of Black artists working with chromatic blackness includes Roy DeCaravra’s photography, Kerry James Marshall’s painting and photography, Kara Walker’s silhouettes, Simone Leigh’s sculptures, and films made by Jordan Peele among many others.
- Lawrence van Gelder, “For Young Blacks, Decency vs. Crime,” New York Times, November 4, 1998, https://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/04/movies/film-review-for-young-blacks-decency-vs-crime.html.
- Noam Milgrom Elcott, Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
- This set up is indicative of Williams’s signature style, which now appears to be the industry standard for lighting dark skin. Instead of directing light at actor’s faces, which it will absorb and result in a flat image, Williams and, now a younger generation of filmmakers, apply glossy makeup or moisturizers that allow the skin to bounce and reflect light. Additionally, I am grateful to Criterion Collection curatorial director Ashley Clark for pointing out Williams’s stylistic influence on contemporary neon films like Spring Breakers (Korine, 2013) and Good Time (Safdie and Safdie, 2017).
- My reading of spatial/architectural depression in the film is deeply indebted to the British architect David Adjaye and his all-black, subterranean structures. Consistent among Adjaye’s chosen projects is an effort to locate blackness underneath the spaces created to produce the image of whiteness. For instance, his most famous project, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, is an upside-down pyramid that finds black history three stories below the ground of the National Mall. Additionally, Adjaye’s work demonstrates the structural relationship between racial and chromatic blackness and picturing the world. For example, in his pavilions the architect pushes blackness to the margins of his structures and, as a result, his designs create the uncanny illusion that the “natural” space surrounding his designs are actually flat, artificial screens. In Adjaye’s work, the places where racial and chromatic blackness come together, a dominant order of space and reality comes apart.
- Last year, before DMX’s tragic death, fans gathered to practice this shift from affective to spatial depression. In visible and audible anticipation of loss, his fans forced street closures outside White Plains Hospital while singing and dancing to DMX’s “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem,” a song released almost two decades before the “rough ride” with Baltimore PD that killed Freddie Gray. In every sense, this performance reckoned with a lack of “progress.” The stopped traffic both echoed DMX’s constant struggles with substance abuse and incarceration (“Ay yo I’m slippin’ I’m fallin’ I can’t get up”) and fans’ unwavering dedication to their collective mourning (“Slippin,’” Spotify, track 10 on DMX, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, RAL (Rush Associated Label), 1998). In other words, the vigils also expressed a refusal to get over the irreconcilability of blackness as an experience of being stuck (in cycles of trauma, in the middle of the street, in critical condition, etc.) and as style (DMX’s bald head, white tank, thick chain, and barking ad libs). For an in-depth discussion of the way Gray’s murder and black communal space have been memorialized by Black filmmakers Bradford Young and Elissa Blount-Moorehead, which Raengo notably attributes to the use of saturated blackness and references to Roy DeCarava’s photography, see Alessandra Raengo, “b.O.s. 9.4: Black America Again,” ASAP/J (June 18, 2020): https://asapjournal.com/b-o-s-9-4-black-america-again-alessandra-raengo/.
- “Anti-Social Social Club” is a streetwear label created by Neek Lurk, previously worn by rappers including Kanye West, Travis Scott, and Wiz Kalifa.
- Kobena Mercer, “Black Art and the Burden of Representation,” Third Text 4, no. 10 (1990): 61-78. See also Tavia Nyong’o, “Unburdening Representation,” The Black Scholar 44, no. 2 (2014): 70-80.