Drawing off the vibrant energy of Fort Greene’s Walt Whitman Houses, Keith Miller’s Five Star places a familiar crime narrative in an ethnographic context, melding fact and fiction into an often-jagged combination. Detailing the ins and outs of local gang culture, it follows Primo (James “Primo” Grant), a “five-star” kingpin, as he comes off a jail term, slowly extricating himself from criminal entanglements, realizing his neighborhood status means next to nothing in the larger world. Meanwhile, he imparts life lessons to teen neophyte John (John Diaz), confused and powerless after the murder of his father, one of Primo’s high-ranking associates and the supposed victim of a stray round. The film charts their opposing paths—one trying to enter a life of crime, one trying to leave—as these dueling destinies push them toward a violent impasse.
Unlike many gang-centered films, which imagine membership as the core value of their character’s lives, Five Star depicts affiliation with the loosely structured Bloods as an almost civic activity, akin to Elks Club membership in a suburban environment. This low-key approach is alluring, but the film doesn’t spend much time examining the gang’s function as a social institution, instead opting for the more common story of men constricted by codes, forced into patterns of behavior by historical precedents they can’t begin to understand. Miller integrates this into a naturalist framework, stripping away most of the surface luster of these criminal enterprises, dialing down on the violence and making the internal power struggles seem petty rather than Shakespearian. Drug dealing is depicted as just another mundane business, one filled with errands and routine transactions, representing little more than the easiest way to pay the rent.
There’s a bit of a divide here, particularly in the way the film attempts to deconstruct gangster tropes while simultaneously gleaning its narrative energy from their innate allure. Once John purchases a gun, loading and racking it on a quiet rooftop, it seems guaranteed that he’ll use it, and the focus steadily shifts from depicting the shape of this world to constructing drama within it, a less interesting proposal than the gradual revelation of character pursued in Welcome to Pine Hill, Miller’s first feature. The director does pull off two nice set pieces in this regard, both involving impeccable timing: one long shot that coincides neatly with a sunrise, another a climactic showdown somehow timed to the exact start of a booming thunderstorm. These add nice detail to standard-issue action scenes, but inevitably only reveal how much more Miller is suited to naturalistic observation than the act of building baroque tragedy, anchored by shaky non-professional actors, around otherwise ordinary street stories.
In Welcome to Pine Hill, the drug angle was all backstory, another layer to be shed on the protagonist’s bumpy road to self-actualization. Five Star maintains the same character-study structure while generating interest from pulpier elements, and while some this works in terms of nuanced portraiture, the film feels more menaced by the crime-drama theatrics than enlivened by them. Miller’s most interesting motif remains the revelation of cities within cities, discrete communities operating with their own distinct sets of rules, and how little overlap exists between these worlds. This gets lost in the focus on violent legacies, a topic that, while thematically related, ends up limiting the film’s scope, reducing public-housing dwellers to the same stock roles they occupy in less thoughtful films, limiting their stories rather than allowing them to develop.