Besides this reviewer, there are five other people in the house the day Belly is released. The film's lack of exposure may account for that or, maybe, director Hype Williams' well-known association with music videos. "I'm not going to see another movie like that," says a film commentator. Another movie like what?

The guy in the back row takes a couple of phone calls: bedroom problems. The couple in the second row solve theirs. The two teenage boys cheer out loud at the highly stylized sex scenes, mostly for what they imagine must have happened between dissolves.

And, yes, the story is the same: drugs, guns, fear and violence; a major heist, a furious shoot-out and a "Message to the Black Man." But there is something stylish and vulnerable about Belly, something that reminds us of the implausible yet formidable premise of Suture, whose characters move through equally elegant worlds devoid of identity or expectation.

Belly's characters take their time at a moment when time is an expensive commodity owned by someone else. They seldom raise their voices. Their faces are composed, their arguments dry and economical. They move quietly inside a darkness which embraces them completely, until their fluorescent-white eyes are the only luminous points on the screen.

If Slam takes chances with its script, Belly experiments with its visual plot: fractured gestures regain composure in lengthy slow-motion scenes; noir designs are followed by crowded, noisy, sunlit streets; an impersonal camera -- watching, on a split screen, the unfolding of four events -- reveals, a moment later, the desperate view of an extreme close-up.

Perhaps Belly's vulnerability comes from its actors -- some known performers of the musical stage, some veterans of gangsta movies: DMX, Nas, Taral Hicks, T-Boz, Method Man, Power, Frank Vincent. Perhaps the film's moral -- that a black man who reads books is a saved man -- offers a simplistic solution to an escalating conflict. But there's definitely something to this "be cool, stay in school" approach to the black existentialist crisis, since both Slam and Belly fight violence with words and win.

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