By Don Simpson | July 23, 2015
Director: Keith Miller
Writer: Keith Miller
Starring: James “Primo” Grant, John Diaz, Wanda Nobles Colon, Jasmine Burgos, Richard Bird, Larry Bogad
A film that will definitely change the way audiences will view gang members, Keith Miller’s Five Star weaves a multi-dimensional portrait of Primo (James “Primo” Grant). A longtime member of the Bloods, Primo has been promoted to the level of a five-star general, making him an untouchable leader who wields so much power that even rival gangs respect him; but to quote Don Corleone, “a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”
As we learn from Primo’s opening monologue, he is haunted by regret for being imprisoned while his son was born. It is the first of many signs that Primo is a family man who does not want his career to affect his role as a father and husband. As we spend more time with Primo, he is revealed to be a kind and thoughtful family man; an identity that is precisely juxtaposed with his street persona that is built upon his fierce and intimidating, tattooed and muscular, presence. While roaming the Walt Whitman housing projects of Fort Greene, Primo’s intense stare is enough to transform menacing bullies into obedient pets; but then when we gaze into Primo’s kind, sad eyes, his true self, both nurturing and protective, shines through.
While trying to find a way to support his family more legitimately, Primo recruits his deceased mentor’s son, John (John Diaz), to eventually fill his void. Primo makes the lanky teenager an offer he can’t refuse, taking John under his wing, teaching him the ways of the streets. The problem is that John, like most teenagers, thinks he knows everything; so, his cockiness becomes his greatest weakness. Further complicating matters, though John’s pedigree seems to have destined him to always be a thug, his primary motivation for accepting Primo’s offer is to learn more about his father’s death.
Throughout the narrative, it is clear that Primo and John are being pulled towards the film’s climax, as if their fates have been predetermined. The early appearance of a handgun seems to assure us that something bad is bound to happen. These two characters are tied to their pasts, just as financial necessities handcuff them to lives of thuggery. They have no other real career options, yet they are both keenly aware that if they stay on their present trajectories, they will end up either in prison or dead. Neither of them want to be criminals, but they have no other choice. Drug dealing, like prostitution, is just another foundational element of a Capitalist economy. It might be illegal, but the demand exists, so somebody has to do it.
The toned-down and thoughtful approach of Five Star establishes a nuanced perspective of the mundanities of life as a gangster. Miller follows up Welcome to Pine Hill with yet another naturally positive portrayal of a black gang member that impressively shatters cinematic stereotypes. Seamlessly blending reality with fiction, Miller really hones in on the authenticity of the characters’ dialogue, specifically in their delivery and intonation. The Primo character is based loosely on James “Primo” Grant’s life, but it feels like Grant has truly lived every moment of every frame of this film.
Five Star is a remarkably insightful film about balancing a career with family — being able to support and protect your family, while also being present. Miller asks us to contemplate the notion of masculinity and what it means to be a man, a husband and a father. It may seem a bit more conventional in narrative structure compared to the wandering nature of Welcome to Pine Hill, but Five Star is a mesmerizing experience all the same.