The greatest and most recognizable landmarks in New York City are not Times Square, the Empire State Building, or the Statue of Liberty; they are the public housing developments that have sheltered millions of people over the last 75 years—including James “Primo” Grant, a member of New York’s Bloods and star of Keith Miller’s new drama, Five Star.
Set in Brooklyn’s Walt Whitman Houses, Five Star follows Grant as a fictional version of himself named “Primo,” alongside his real-life family and the living city. Grant, born and raised in Brooklyn, joined the Bloods as a pre-teen; in the film, he is a five-star general for an unnamed but similar group.
The military parallel is one of several instances in which the movie highlights the similarities between the fictional Primo’s affiliation and other social institutions. When Primo attends a Bar Mitzvah, for example, he comments on how much alike the Jewish ceremony was to his family initiation, only without the ritualized infant genital mutilation.
“[The family] offers mental and emotional support,” Grant tells The Daily Beast. “It even goes as far as being active within communities to assist families who don’t have enough, whether it’s food, shelter, clothing. But the biggest [benefit] is mental and emotional because the vast majority are young boys looking for that father figure, that family.”
In the film, “Primo” first appears behind the wheel of a car, as he soliloquizes about missing the birth of his son because he was incarcerated (a story drawn from Grant’s own life).
As a free man, Primo spends his days as a caring father, a loving partner at home, and a mentor among the young men of the neighborhood. He quasi-adopts a boy named John (played by John Diaz), whom he initiates into the shadow economy.
“[John] learns from me and through me and becomes such a greater person,” Grant says. “They make a pact. They become one. ‘I’ve got your back.’ ‘You got my back.’ My brothers, they got my back and I got theirs. If they need, I have it. If I need, they got it. It’s that family you can’t get at home.”
But adjusting to Primo’s world doesn’t come easy for John, just as balancing fatherhood and street life doesn’t come easy for Primo.
“John is trapped in the middle of it.” Grant says. “He’s caught between the two worlds, between work and some sense of loyalty. [Primo] always wants to be the man, so with John he’s trying to find that. My character is trying to balance the world of this tough, badass gang, to a soft, loving father and husband.”
Primo’s dual roles of protector and enforcer come to a head when John is tasked with delivering a drug package, which is stolen. But the risk of punishment for narcotics distribution seems minimal because law enforcers rarely intrude on the film’s space.
“They’re not there. They know that we govern ourselves,” Grant says. “They only come in if there’s a call made. That’s not to say the good guys aren’t doing their jobs. Especially in Fort Greene, they walk around a little bit, but as far as being posted…That’s why you don’t see them in the film.”
More than five years in the making, Five Star is the second incarnation of a short film Miller and Grant put on YouTube called “Gangbanging 101.” When Miller came up with the idea for a longer-form film, he reached out to Grant again. “He had great screen presence,” Miller says.
The film succeeds in countering overwhelmingly negative depictions of life in public housing by presenting the film from the Whitman inhabitants’ own perspectives. Actively resisting monoculture through diverse film casting and employment practices is important to Miller.
“I’m sure that everyone has their own reason for avoiding it.” Miller said about the lack of diversity in film. “The history of representation of white directors of people of color in film is not a happy one.”
Miller and crew made it a point to work with the neighborhood as they made the film. “Anyone who lives in Brooklyn knows the amount of times they’ve been told ‘You can’t go down this street’ or ‘No parking tomorrow,’” Miller says. “I was really adamant, I didn’t want to do that.”
If Five Star has any faults, it is in ignoring its female characters. What few women are depicted have lives centered around the film’s men. Primo has a girlfriend, with whom he has daughters, and John has a love interest and a mother, but those women’s stories are left largely untold.
Miller spends the majority of the film exploring the masculinity of men in flux. John is on the cusp of adult manhood. Primo is of an age where the last of his children are almost grown and he must decide how he will spend his autumn years. Primo’s opening soliloquy shows a man already scared at how easy it is for life to take away irreplaceable moments.
“It’s very much a coming of age story for John but in a way also for Primo,” Miller says. “They’re in parallel paths, but at different points in those paths.The question of what it means to be a man is very confused and challenged. It was straightforward 50 years ago, even if it was inherently problematic. Now with the opening of trans spaces, and before that LGBT spaces, and then before that, people of colors’ spaces—all these things [open] up spaces to challenge existing definitions.”
The film touches on some heavy issues, but ends on a hopeful note. Grant, too, is hopeful about the future. “Crime is going down. Fort Greene used to be a very tough place to live in,” he says. “The time I spent there was tough. But today, it’s calmed down a whole lot. I hope [public housing] can grow and continue to save people and continue to assist families. It’s housing for a lot of families that can’t live in this financial economy.”
“People rarely see the good that we do,” Grant continues. “All you hear in the media is ‘Gang Member Rapes…’ or ‘Gang Member Fights…” It’s always negative. If you can tell me out of 10 times how many positive stories have you heard about a gang member? To even call it a gang… Fraternities, they get drunk and crazy, do some wild stuff, but they’re still known as a fraternity. The NYPD. Every organization has a set of knuckleheads, but they’re not referred to as gangs. I’m not trying to look down on anybody, but at the end of the day, we’re regular people. We want to go home. We want to work. We want to make money. We want to live happy. We want to be loved. We want to love.”