ARTICLE GILLIAN SAGANSKY
ONE STANDOUT AT THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL WAS DIRECTOR KEITH MILLER'S GRITTY AND TOUCHING BROOKLN DRAMA, FIVE STAR. GILLIAN SAGANSKY SITS DOWN WITH HIM AFTER A PARTICULARLY EXPLOSIVE PREMIERE TO QUESTION THE CONTROVERSY SURROUNDING HIS CHARACTERS
After John (John Diaz)’s absent father is struck by a stray bullet, Primo (James "Primo" Grant) takes it upon himself to verse the young boy in the code of the streets—one founded on respect and upheld by fear. A member of the Bloods since the age of twelve—both in the film and in reality—the streets of Brooklyn are all Primo has ever known. While John questions whether or not to enter into this life, Primo must decide whether to leave it all behind as he vows to become a better husband and father. Set during those New York summer weeks where the stifling heat seems to encase everything, Five Star plunges into gang culture with searing intensity. For his sophomore feature Director Keith Miller (Welcome To Pine Hill, 2012) observes the lives of these two men with a quiet yet pointed distance, carefully eschewing worn clichés through its unflinching focus. Distinctions between the film’s narrative and life outside of it remain intentionally ambiguous, allowing the story of these two people to resonate beyond the streets, as they face the question of what it means to be a man. We met with Miller to discuss the fine line between fiction and reality, what constitutes masculinity, and what it means to humanize a subculture that is typically vilified.
You're a white professor and artist living in Brooklyn. Needless to say, you're rather far removed from the world you've masterfully depicted. What initially sparked your interest in this subject matter?
KEITH MILLER: I met Primo through the star of my last movie and we did a short conversation on camera. After that piece was finished we became close, and talked about making a larger feature film. Primo had a series of experiences and personal transformations that were interesting to look at and touched on larger social themes that were important to me.
But why gang life?
KM: I'm not that focused on the gang side of it. I think it's a very interesting part of the story, in that it's the context in which the movie takes place, and I know that's the focus for a lot of people. Early on, someone asked me, Why do you talk to those people?—people meaning gang members. My response to that was Right, that's why I should make this movie. Once you see a whole group of people, whether gang members or the poor, as frightening, you dehumanize them and that dehumanization leads to violence and injustice.
Your decision to show the humanizing side over the violent one that typically gets portrayed in popular culture was apparent—but during the Q&A session following the screening, Primo stood up and admitted to the audience that he was a Blood. How did you reconcile the real and the scripted? Did you draw from the real life happenings of the actors?
KM: Well, you put two cameras and 18 people behind them and everything is acting, nothing is real life. On the reverse side, there are facts in the story that come directly from real life and other facts that were not necessarily connected to the real lives of the characters and through an uncanny twist, happen to be perfectly in sync with their life. There’s a certain depiction of reality that's very standard and cinematic, and then there's the way I engage with the actors, where I try to push the reality of everything.
How much about this world did you know before and how much of it was a collaborative effort between you and the actors?
KM: There are elements to the story that came right from the actors. As far as specifics, I always asked the actors if it would happen like that—I would ask the actors how a scene feels, whether it felt authentic. I know your question is, Where is the reality in this? But for me, there's a more interesting question: Whether it's all scripted or improvised, what's really underneath that question? Why would the reality be interesting?
The narrative took so many forms. It was a story about love, truth, gender, and crime, but you also weren’t trying to justify actions. It was more about showing a slice of life through a lens people wouldn’t normally have access to or even care about: The un-Hollywood, non-violent side of gang life.
KM: For me, the movie is about what it means to be a man. For both Primo and John it's a coming of age story. John has to articulate himself as a man defined in his own terms: a positive relationship to his mother and an autonomous man from his father. Primo has to articulate himself as a man in opposition to but also in conjunction with the man he has been in the past. He wants to be a father and a husband.
I couldn’t believe he stood up and announced, “I am a Blood,” at the premiere.
KM: You'll notice when you talk to him, or in Q&As, he admits he is still active. It’s unusual that you hear members say that. That's the family and brotherhood he has. He acknowledges the problems but also says, I’m not gonna distance myself from that. It’s a battle for the future given the present and the past. But Primo is making a positive change, especially by making the movie. I don't make a distinction between what happens on the screen or outside of the frame. The making of the movie was about the transformations that we had in our interactions: John's and Primo's and mine. The movie itself is like that but Primo is still doing these things. And by these things I mean the positive transformations.
You mentioned that your movie is about what constitutes masculinity, what it means to be a man. What does masculinity mean to you?
KM: I think for a lot of people their idea has a degree of toughness, being able to defend your son, girlfriend, partner. For me it's an ability to realize your potential as an autonomous subject in relation to a lot of people. I'm usually not interested in characters that have such a clear goal or work towards their goal in such a clear way.
So instead, the shades of grey.