Youth, poverty, neglect. Aspiration, desperation. Dark skin. These are the combustible ingredients of two intriguing, if imperfect, movies at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival: Five Star and True Son. The first is a feature film, the second a documentary. The former is despairing, the latter hopeful. Taken together in beer-back fashion, they form a unified narrative about what it’s like to be a young man of color in the United States of America in this Year of Our Lord 2014. The answer, in short: hard.
Directed by Keith Miller of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective, Five Star takes place in the Walt Whitman Houses in the Fort Greene section of that borough, a neighborhood whose gentrification was profanely bemoaned by Spike Lee in a recent rant. John, a taciturn high-schooler, has lost his drug-dealing father to what he suspects wasn’t really a stray bullet. At the start of the film, he comes under the tutelage of a Blood named Primo, who may know more about the father’s murder than he initially lets on, even as he gives John ever greater responsibilities in the narcotics enterprise.
Five Star is small but lush, focusing on a small group of characters instead of trying for ghetto Dickensianism (done well only by The Wire thus far). The film does squander narrative tension at several crucial points, succumbing to art house longueurs. But the shortcomings of Miller’s second feature-length film are eclipsed by the performance of James “Primo” Grant, which truly deserves a cliché: worth the price of admission. Even if he weren’t a bearded bear covered in tattoos, Grant would dominate every scene in Five Star. Wise and quiet, he is the closest gang cinema approaches to the popular ideal of a Vito Corleone from the hood. You feel that there are always deep reserves of violence coiled within him, but he is too smart to unleash them. Unless he has to.
The most striking thing about Grant is that he plays himself, making Five Star less a work of fiction than most of its rivals. Like the fictional Primo, the real-life Primo turned Blood at 12 and now works security. Though he hews to some street stereotypes, he subverts others: the film features his real family, including four children and fiancé. He plays the game, but is not a player, and the most winning scenes simply show Primo hanging out his kids, exactly the way a white suburban father might. As the happy children scribble on construction paper and race around the apartment, you almost forget what their father does for a living.
And then there is his other child, the quasi-adopted one, played with quiet torment by John Diaz, whose scrawny arms give him away for the teenager that he is. Primo is John’s benefactor, mentor and surrogate father. He is also a warning about what “the game” will do to those who play it. “Ain’t no sympathy in this sh--t,” he says at one point. “It’s real.” John is his acquiescent vessel, which makes him both a frustrating character and a realistic one: the kid is just a kid. Five Star neither leans too hard on the grim reality Primo outlines nor ignores it (how could you, in a gang film?). Men discuss drug sales while preppy young mothers stroll past. Welcome to Brooklyn, pal.
True Son, is real, too, all the way through and in the best way possible. It is the improbable story of Michael Tubbs, who grew up in the dessicated Northern California city of Stockton, whose municipal bankruptcy became one of the saddest symbols of the Great Recession and its aftermath. Coming of age in what appears to have been a lower-middle-class family, Tubbs made his way to Stanford and became a star on the Palo Alto campus that was so close to home and so far away from it. He could have probably made the short skip to Silicon Valley, but Tubbs instead returned to his hometown and decided to run for the city council, challenging an incumbent Republican who seemed to have solid support from Stockton’s white residents.
Tubbs, like the fictional John of Five Star, knows the streets, if not quite as intimately: his cousin was killed in a shootout, which precipitated his own return to Stockton and involvement in Democratic politics. And his upstart campaign is waged against the backdrop of continuing violence in the city, a state of affairs that Tubbs at one point likens to that of a Third World country. The tract housing of Stockton could not be more different than the red-brick city projects John calls home, and yet both young men sense acutely the desperation around them, the need to do something. A restlessness propels both stories, though in different directions.
Much like his counterpart in Five Star, Tubbs can stray from material reality, giving his campaign manager headaches by focusing on teenage empowerment sessions instead of gladhanding and fundraising. Like John, he is vague in a way that is endearing, inchoate and therefore hopeful. True Son hits all the inspirational notes you might expect while also trying (with only partial success, I should say) to make a minor election seem riveting.
Both movies subvert stereotypes without violently discarding them. Tubbs gets $10,000 from Oprah Winfrey, but that won’t make him the next Barack Obama. John hears his mother’s entreaties, but can’t quite leave the hustle. Because, of course, “the streets” are a synecdochal construction that encompasses much more than just split pavement and foreclosure signs. And for all the invocation of “the street” in popular culture, it remains overly mythologized and little understood. Both Five Star and True Son add nuance to the story. Beauty, too.