In 2012, writer-director Keith Miller made his feature debut with Welcome to Pine Hill, an unhurried drama about a reformed drug dealer in New York City. The movie was imperfect but effective in many ways, mostly thanks to Miller's skill in getting moving performances from non-actors playing versions of themselves.
Miller's tale is a kind of coming-of-age story, set in the projects of Brooklyn and following two men linked by tragedy. Primo (real life gang leader James 'Primo' Grant), is a five-star general of the Bloods, an imposing man capable of brutal violence but also incredible tenderness. He's been in the game for a long time and therefore earned the kind of respect and power that makes him nearly untouchable in the hood. John (John Diaz) is the teenaged son of Primo's deceased gang boss, a man who John barely knew before he was killed by a stray bullet, but whose reputation as godfather has protected John all his life. Primo takes the lost young man under his wing, teaching him how to navigate gang life. And as John contemplates whether he's truly ready to walk in his father's drug dealing path, Primo contemplates finally getting out of the game for good.
There's an authenticity to the film, in the city sights soundscapes. The humanity in the characters is highlighted through the mundanities and everyday realities of what drug dealing truly entails - every minute isn't full of drive-bys and people getting jumped.
"This shit is real," Primo tells John. Not just the danger, but the day-to-day struggle of balancing gang life with real life. We see John drop off a bag, but we also see him clean his room after being nagged at by his mother. We see Primo make a violent house call to someone that owes him money, but we also see him lovingly comfort his crying son. What drives the movie are these quiet, candidly shot little moments.
Grant especially must be commended for his work. Diaz has charm and fluidity, but for someone who has presumably never acted before, Grant's performance is particularly impressive. If he's playing himself, he seems to be baring parts of himself that he perhaps hadn't accessed before. His first scene, a striking closeup that opens the film, features a meaty monologue that sets the tone for the film and is only matched by a moving climax. But overall, the chemistry between Grant and Diaz, a father-son dynamic tinged with a kind of foreboding tension, sits at the heart of the piece.
Movies that explore masculinity and manhood, particularly black masculinity, often tend to focus on crises of identity hinging on not being "man enough." Five Star, though it does rely on certain tropes of masculinity (the "breadwinner" role, for instance), at least makes an attempt to present a more nuanced representation of the black male, especially one of the most stereotyped versions we've seen on screen, that of the gangster.
Both Primo and John are allowed to exhibit so-called "feminine" behavior, vulnerability and insecurity, particularly around women. These instances are are subtle, but only further deepen the complexities of both men's struggles.
Five Star is a compelling portrait, and a refreshing take on a setting and characters too often sensationalized.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.