Much like any suburban-born child, my only true exposure to “the streets” has come through the lens of Spike Lee, F. Gary Gray, Rick Famuyiwa, John Singleton, and many more filmmakers who have shined a light on the hood’s constant hustle. I’m just a simple Jersey boy learning the lessons of respect through movies set to a concrete jungle backdrop, the latest of which is Keith Miller’s Five Star. Blending the styles of documentary and narrative, Miller explores the ideals of manhood that are birthed from the hardened, gang-ridden streets of New York City – a concept that’s been dealt with time and time again. But Five Star has something say, and enough personality to make you listen.
The story of Five Star is loosely based on the experiences of James ‘Primo’ Grant, who stars as a top-ranking Bloods member with a hard decision to make. After missing the birth of his son while locked behind bars, Primo wishes to start a more noble life away from drug trafficking and rivalry violence. He takes his mentor’s son, John (John Diaz), under his wing, and shows his protege the same respect John’s father once showed him. If John listens to Primo, one day he’ll be revered like his father once was. If he doesn’t, he could end up living out his mother’s worst nightmares in jail. Such are the trials and tribulations of becoming a man.
Five Star is an examination of manhood at its most primal. Entering manhood represents a universal maturation that signifies a turning point in every boy’s life, but is celebrated differently by all cultures. For me there was no celebration, only a silent understanding between father and son after establishing an independent life for myself. For those of the Jewish faith, lavish Bar Mitzvah events are thrown to commemorate a child’s crossing the threshold of boyhood. For Primo, manhood meant fighting twelve other boys in a physical fist fight to prove your worth. While all three scenarios are completely different, they all commemorate the same simple concept of leaving immaturity behind for a newfound respect and honor. This is what John learns through his straight-laced, no-bullshit relationship with Primo, as Miller highlights the many different ways people celebrate the same exciting milestone.
Miller deserves credit for the relationship he’s able to strike between Primo and John, and the raw honesty that Primo is able to find in each scene. John “Primo” Grant isn’t playing a character – he’s re-living the past and injecting experience into each conversation with Diaz. Primo is as charismatic a general as Patton, and his grittiness doesn’t wreak of Hollywood stereotyping. Primo has earned respect, lived a dangerous life, and he doesn’t hide those memories from Miller’s story. There’s a genuine ruggedness to Primo, first exposed during a rough-and-tumble basketball game, and from there, we meet a conflicted man who cares for his family more than his underground status. A ruggedness that even the most dedicated, well-trained actor can’t embody. You can’t teach the real-world classes Grant attended as a young lad ascending his local Bloods chapter, and Five Star is a better movie for Primo’s experience.
Going hand-in-hand with Primo’s vibrancy is the simplicity in John and Primo’s connection. There’s no room for excuses or games in these dire situations. If John screws the pooch, no only is it his future that’ll be destroyed, but possibly Primo and his family as well. The stakes feel real, and John’s fatherless life creates a quick and easy bond with Primo that makes failure even less of an option than expected. John Diaz does well for himself in the pseudo-leading role, and finds a deeply-layered performance as a boy who’s forced into being a man by the death of his own absentee father. Diaz’s energy is infectious, and just like Primo, at no time does it feel like John doesn’t belong in New York’s urban environment.
That’s the winning factor of Five Star – reality. At no point does Miller’s work feel like fiction, as you’d expect to see Primo and John walking along the streets of NYC on your own travels. You know, when you’re running cocaine to prove your worth in the Bloods’ career advancement system! But seriously, Five Star is a boiled-down story about growing up amidst challenges many of us have never had to face, and hopefully never will. It’s the kind of movie that reminds those more fortunate souls of how lucky they are, and the hardships they avoided by being so lucky. A man is a man no matter how he’s anointed – just be lucky you didn’t have to risk a prison sentence to become one.
Five Star has the power to make anyone appreciate the life they have, and think about what it really takes to be a man.