Keith Miller’s hard-hitting drama Five Star, hits theaters today and the film provides an honest and unflinching look at life for a grizzled gang veteran in East New York who’s trying to guide the son of his slain mentor as the younger man comes of age in an environment throttled by violence. James “Primo” Grant stars as a fictionalized version of himself, a rough-and-tumble Brooklyn native who fought his way out of gang life to live and tell his story to those coming up behind him and those who may not understand this world. And Grant says it wasn’t always easy to revisit some of the darker moments of his life.
“[This movie] gets close to the point that I am speaking on real-life things,” Primo explains. “It gets very personal for me because this is something that I invested my time and my experiences into. I’ve lived these moments. To tap back into those emotions and back into that moment of heartache … knowing that my son was brought into the world and I wasn’t there because I was behind bars. For any man, any father who loves his children, to not be there, it crushes you. To relive that is hard but it’s also an honor.
“I hope that anyone who’s watching and listening can see that if an old ghetto kid like me can change and evolve into a father, a grown man, a husband — anybody can make that change. Put aside pride, put aside the ego and look at what’s right. It might be difficult, but do it.”
John Diaz realized while making this film that so many young men from this world don’t believe that there is any alternative to it. The 21-year-old stars as John, the teenage son of Primo’s departed mentor, and he says that the film reminds us to go beyond the surface. “It’s a situation where people may see me and think I don’t know about this or that — or they could see Primo and think that — but you can’t judge a book by its cover,” says Diaz. “You have to pay attention and listen. That’s what this movie is. You have to pay attention and really listen to what’s going on in this man’s life. Besides the gang stuff, this is a man living a life.”
The focus on manhood was what drove director Miller to tell this particular story.
“I refer to the idea of what does it mean today to be a man,” Miller says. “That’s the challenge of the movie — it touches on two points in a man’s life, when he’s becoming a man and when he’s becoming a different kind of man. There are a lot of choices to be made. When you’re a young man, regardless of where you’re from, you may not know you have choices because you don’t’ really realize you can do certain things. There’s a complexity in everyone so to act like a person is just one thing, denies those choices.”
“This movie helped me realize these things are possible,” admits Diaz. “A lot of people from neighborhoods like mine and Primo’s, they forget how possible this really is. I won’t say it’s easy, but how accessible it is. It really opened my mind to how many people could really change the world or don’t know about this movie and think that making a movie is impossible or a dream to them. Primo is living proof that no matter what your past is, you can change it. They’ve really shown me that this can happen and if you put your heart into it, it can work.”
“Regarding the specific setting, Fort Greene, the projects, gang life, whatever—I was much more interested in the specifics of the people,” Miller adds. “The fabric that makes up the story is only as interesting as the people in it.
“I think there are a lot of problems in the communities of working poor and that’s one situation — the armed invasion is another. Those are two situations and both of them have bodies on the line.”
And for Primo, watching his story unfold onscreen has been bittersweet, but it has also provided him with a platform to try and influence his community. He wants disenfranchised young men, in particular, to know they are loved and valued by someone.
“It’s difficult being a man of color — but being a man period can be heartbreaking,” Primo says. “We need more organizations out there to keep these kids off of the streets and let them know there’s another outlet. My mentor, to this day, sends me a text ‘good morning’ every morning. You need to know somebody cares. If you have someone out there who knows that someone cares, that means something. That touches something. My mentor and I text each other every morning. It matters to know that this man cares about me.
“In these communities with everything going on, there needs to be some kind of community service. We need to get these young men together and show them something else.”
FIVE STAR premieres in New York City theaters today, in Los Angeles on July 31 and VOD Aug. 4.