Making its Los Angeles premiere on August 9, Malik Vitthal’s
debut feature “Imperial Dreams” tells the story of a young ex-convict
seeking a better life for himself and his son. It screens in Next Fest,
Sundance’s annual film and music showcase at the Ace Hotel.
It’s easy to see why the film took the Best of Next Audience
Award at the Sundance Film Festival in January, as it represents classic and
heartfelt storytelling at its best. But as an understated drama set in the crime-ridden
Imperial Courts housing projects of Watts, Los Angeles, it runs the risk of
being overlooked as a story we’ve seen before.
The plot centers on Bambi (John Boyega), a 21-year-old newly
released from prison and looking to jumpstart a writing career in order to turn
his life around. But as soon as he hits the streets of his old neighborhood, he’s
confronted with challenges that threaten to pull him back into a life of crime.
Most pressing is the need to care for his four-year-old son Day (played by
twins Justin and Ethan Coach), who’s been left in the care of his drug-running
Uncle Shrimp (Glenn Plummer) after Bambi’s girlfriend Samaara (Keke Palmer) is
locked up on charges of her own. Bambi’s brother Wayne (Rotimi), cousin Gideon (De’aundre
Bonds) and drug-addicted mother Tanya (Kellita Smith) do their best to welcome
him back into the fold, but their needs only threaten to trump his own goal of
earning money while keeping his hands clean.
Eventually Bambi is left to face poverty with his son at his
side in a struggle akin to “The Pursuit of Happyness,” clinging to his
dream against all odds. But unlike that story, this one moves beyond the moral of
personal willpower to acknowledge some of the broken institutions holding its
hero back. Through Bambi’s eyes, we see the day-to-day difficulty of life as an
ex-con, where getting a job or even an ID can be next to impossible.
Vitthal avoids many of the clichés common to the genre with
the layered portrayal of Bambi and his loved ones. This is a world where
violence and corruption are prevalent, but also where black men, even presumed
villains and thugs, actively demonstrate love, fear, and affection. It’s in
this complex emotional territory that Boyega shines brightest, showing equal
parts toughness and vulnerability. The “Attack The Block” star plays the
role of Bambi with a maturity that reaches far beyond his 21 years, reflecting both
his talent and the harsh realities of the character, who isn’t afforded the
luxury of an easy childhood. According to Vitthal, Boyega spent a month in
Watts prior to the film getting familiar with Bobby “Yay Yay” Jones,
the real-life inspiration for the film. Apparently the work paid off, as he pulls
off the role convincingly, giving a glimpse of what’s sure to be a stellar
Despite its merits, “Dreams” had a definite lack
of buzz at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and has yet to receive
distribution. It’s possible that the film seems to tread in old territory considering
recent “Fruitvale Station,” another tale where a troubled youth tries
to turn over a new leaf. And even the premise of a reformed ex-con in the hoods
of LA harkens back to a bygone era of ’90s thug dramas. But to gloss over “Dreams” as
just another film set in the hood would be a mistake. With rich storytelling,
fine acting, and captivating cinematography and score by Flying Lotus, the
movie is a cinematic achievement.
“Imperial Dreams” screens at Sundance Next Fest on August 9 alongside a performance by R&B artist Tinashe. The film is preceded by “M.A.A.D.”, a short by Kahlil Joseph commissioned by Kendrick Lamar, Find tickets here.