Film Review – Five Star with Director Keith Miller

By Emily Seibel

May 1, 2015

It is clear what will lure curious indie filmgoers to Keith Miller’s Five Star; the narrative seems to blend fiction and reality by starring actual gang kingpin James “Primo” Grant as himself. In real-life and in the film, Primo tops the hierarchy of power on the streets of Brooklyn as a five star general of the Bloods. While rough gang life on inner city streets does provide the melody for Five Star, the harmony is what audiences will remember: Miller’s multi-faceted characters and commitment to authenticity throughout Five Star make for a powerful variation on the much more familiar theme of growing up. With Grant’s extraordinary screen presence leading the way, the film packs both visual and emotional punches from the first scene and never backs down.

Currently making the festival circuit, Miller’s sophomore feature Five Star focuses on Primo’s relationship with John (John Diaz), a young teen whose high-level gang leader father was recently killed by a stray bullet – at least, that’s the word on the streets. His late father’s legacy, as well as Primo’s support gives John the opportunity to follow in his father’s footsteps, if he can decide he wants to take that path. John’s uncertain journey to adulthood isn’t only about his gang involvement, and while Diaz nails over-the-top bravado masking uncertainty in scenes with gang members, he soars playing John as the fumbling but tender boyfriend with young love Jasmin (Jasmin Burgos).

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As a duo, Diaz and Grant and their characters couldn’t be more different. Diaz is lanky and brace-faced where Grant is immense, tattooed, and heavily bearded. John is immature and flighty while Primo rules the streets with calm and mannered certainty. When they share the screen, the blend of visual and metaphoric juxtaposition is captivating.  James “Primo” Grant and John Diaz share excellent rapport despite their differences in Keith Miller’s Five Star.

Above all, the film has its greatest success with lead Grant. In the first scene, he delivers an emotionally charged monologue with impeccable timing and hauntingly direct delivery. On the one hand, Grant’s mastery of the craft makes it hard to believe this is his first film experience; on the other, it is precisely his non-acting and genuineness that is his greatest strength. Though at an adult age, Primo does growing up of his own throughout Five Star, making major decisions about his future centered on his family. Grant’s impactful performance successfully paints Primo as a full, extremely multi-dimensional character, switching impeccably from menacing head gangster to affectionate papa of four little ones.

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James “Primo” Grant

Five Star is mostly filmed with wide, sometimes shaky shots that jump around the scene, never pausing to focus on the character speaking for long – with Primo’s introductory monologue being the one major exception. In a later scene, rather than see his face when delivering a line, we see Primo delicately picking up his pet kitten, and learn so much more about him in that moment. In terms of lighting, Miller’s Brooklyn isn’t one that turns dark or dramatically ominous at any point. The perpetually sun-dappled streets can’t help but impact the mood; this isn’t just the ‘hood – it is home.

Run time – 82 min. Limited release scheduled for July 2015.

Director Keith Miller attended recent Five Star screenings at the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem, where Grant was awarded Honorable Mention for Best Actor in the Narrative Competition. CLTure had the chance to catch up with Keith Miller following the screening. 

Keith MillerPhotographer: Nathan Fitch
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CLTure: What led you to make this particular film?

Keith Miller: I had been thinking making a movie about what it means to be a man, getting ideas around that, and about a son without a father. Then I met Primo in my last movie. The lead was this guy Shannon, and he was a bouncer, and I was with him and his cousin who was also a bouncer. They said, ‘Oh, you wanna meet this guy who is a five star general in the Bloods?’ So I went and met Primo, actually right there in the Walt Whitman housing project. We had an hour long on-camera conversation. It was kind of an interview, but it wasn’t like ‘Tell me about your life, where you from,’ it was more just talking about stuff. I edited that down to a short called Gang Banging 101, which was two minutes long. He has, I think obviously, a great presence on camera; very thoughtful. He’s at an age where he has kind of been through it, and also had time to reflect – part of it prison time – and also he’s just not a kid anymore. And we really liked each other, and he trusted me and I trusted him. And we saw that he was really into it – he’s a ham! He likes the camera, and luckily the camera likes him.

CLTure: What were your next steps from there?

KM: So we talked about making a longer project; we met up a bunch of times, and talked about certain aspects. A lot of the details in the movie, like the specifics of a scene, would come from a conversation we had. Then I wrote the arc of the story: this young guy, kind of estranged father, killed by a stray bullet. And what I try to do in my movies – this one, and the last one – is take real life situations and cross them with fictional arcs and structures. My concerns are always first and foremost about people, human interaction. I try to make the movie scenes feel as intimate as possible, as lived and real as possible. One of the goals in any specific scenes is to not make the dialogue too “on point.” […] And aside from the human intimate part, I really want my movies to somehow engage with politics and social justice. My last movie was not about race or class, but it was really a movie that had race and class differences built into it. So for this movie, that was very much of a part of it. I thought Primo, who is and was an interesting character when I first met him; he was, by his own evaluation, both a good guy and someone who’s made some really bad decisions. And there were consequences for them, both in his life and in the lives of others. And so there’s one kind of liberal interpretation of that; that you can think about society. And then there’s a different interpretation of that then which says he’s in charge of his own life. I think it’s a lot more nuanced to challenge it. He’s a real person, and he could have chosen differently.

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John Diaz

CLTure: Tell us a bit about the filming process. How did you get access in particular situations?

KM: While all the situations for me are very real, they’re all straight narrative. [For example], he didn’t really punch that guy in that scene – that’s his brother; not mom/dad brother, but “brother”. The intensity is there and the situation is very close. That kind of apartment is called the trap house – it’s where they transfer guns and drugs and stuff. But that wasn’t really the trap house they use. Basically the way that I work is that I don’t send a casting agent to find people. I don’t send a location scout to find locations, and I don’t get a producer to make sure everything’s ok. I mean, I do sometimes for certain locations, but most of the time it’s just me going up and hanging out with the people, and feeling it out. […]So the access didn’t come from trying to find actors who could play the parts. It came from hanging out with people. […] So that kind of access with Primo, and the guys, and the places, comes through that- establishing a trust.

CLTure: What kind of choices did you make regarding camera work and editing for this film, and why?

KM: I wanted to use this shooting style to feel very present […]. When I directed the camera people, you’ll notice in the scene when John and Primo are talking on the couch, that it just kind of drifts away from their faces a lot. What I said to them was that I just wanted them to kind of find the energy in that moment. […] And what I was looking for was that – in any kind of conversation there might be some sort of flow of energy. It might be right on someone’s face, or it might be kind of ‘I don’t want to hear what you’re saying,’ so it kind of goes away. That is what I hope for out of the camera, so when I edit, I cut to that.

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When I see a movie, I hate seeing the kind of documentary or narrative where every time someone speaking the camera is on their face […]. I think great actors are great listeners on camera. Seeing someone listen is just good acting. Seeing someone talk, and it being intense, that’s good acting too – delivering lines, that’s great. But John listening on the couch is why John’s a good actor. You know, he’s got a pretty face, and all of the sudden you’re starting to think – the wheels are turning in the kids head. If that’s where the action is, I want to see it. If it happens to be on the kitten – you know, Primo picking up that kitten is a poignant moment. […] Those moments, I think, are why I wanted the camera to move like that.

CLTure: The film has real people playing themselves. What are any potential consequences of their real lives being so public now? Primo’s real children were featured in the film. Was there any danger in exposing them?

KM: Before we shot anything of the feature, Primo checked in and talked with his peers about what it is. You know, it’s one of these things that if there was – if the gang unit went in and did a raid on my hard drive, and went through all the terabytes of information, there’s nothing even slightly condemning there. […] There are no names or anything […]. And as far as gang intelligence, I think [Grant is] on that list already. And he’s not now engaged in illegal activity. So I don’t think that there are any implications, actually.

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CLTure: What was it like directing Primo [Grant] and John [Diaz]? With Primo as a non-actor but John having some more experience, did you have to do anything differently?

KM: John did some theater in high school and got a scholarship to go to college, but he didn’t like college, so he did have a bit more experience. But Primo was, in a way, more experienced. With most non-traditional actors that I’ve worked with it’s very different than working with a trained actor. With a trained actor you can say something like ‘Play it bigger,’ and they’ll be like ‘Bigger than what?’ if they’re non-trained. If they’re trained, they’re like ‘Oh, right, I get it, I understand what that means.’ Or ‘I want you to internalize this,’ [a non-trained actor] is like ‘Internalize what?’ But actually with Primo, in the scene where he has the long monologue to John at the kitchen table, we must have done eight takes of that, maybe 10. And I could say ‘I want you to be more intimidating, I want you to be sadder, I want you to be more intense, I want you to change your body posture.’ And he could give a good performance in a different way each time. So he was really taking direction. And also he was also really generous with his scene partners. At the end of a scene, when John delivers something, I’d call cut, and he’d be like ‘John, you were amazing.’ He was very generous with the crew and with the cast […]. Primo was really into the craft of acting, clearly and quickly. Any scene he did [with a more experienced actor] he was very observant.

CLTure: What is next for Primo [James Grant]?

KM: Now he’s pursuing a career as an actor. Him and John both got managers out of Tribeca where we premiered last year.

Check out more info and screenings for Five Star.

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