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Stream of the Day: John Boyega Made a Black Lives Matter Plea Six Years Ago with ‘Imperial Dreams’

The actor, who gave an impassioned speech in support of protests last week, had something similar to say with this pre-fame film.

Imperial Dreams

“Imperial Dreams”

Sundance

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It’s impossible to watch John Boyega’s impassioned speech at a Black Lives Matter rally in London last week, in support of widespread protests over the killing of George Floyd, and not be moved. “Black lives have always mattered,” Boyega said. “We have always been important. We have always meant something. We have always succeeded regardless. And now is the time.”

Six years prior, before “Star Wars” made him a global star, Boyega made a similar plea with “Imperial Dreams,” a nuanced portrait of poor black people in the America, and a critique of a system that stifles the chances of young black men with troubled pasts.

In “Imperial Dreams,” a 21-year-old reformed gangster and aspiring writer named Bambi (Boyega) is released from prison after a 28 month stint, and returns to his violent old stomping grounds in the Watts area of Los Angeles, where his devotion to his family — particularly his 4-year-old son Daytone (played by twins Ethan and Justin Coach), and his family’s future — are put to the test.

His top priority is reconnecting with his son who has been left in the care of Bambi’s drug-dealing uncle Shrimp (Glenn Plummer) and drug-addicted mother Tanya (Kellita Smith), after the mother of Bambi’s son, Samaara (Keke Palmer), ends  up in jail herself for a non-violent crime, done out of the kind of desperation that poverty creates.

Determined to turn his life around, Bambi faces numerous temptations to relapse into criminal life, like Shrimp offering him $4,000 to drive a shipment of drugs to Oregon. A more productive path comes in the form of Bambi’s half-brother, Wayne (Rotimi Akinosho), who has landed a partial scholarship to Howard University — if only he can find a way to make up for the rest of his tuition.

The core of the film is the tender relationship between Bambi and Day. Boyega and the admirably natural Coach twins are very believable in their portrait of the father-son bond. It’s clear that Bambi wants to turn his life around for the sake of his boy.

Inspired by the real life story of Bobby “Yay Yay” Jones, the film outlines the obstacles young black men who are suffocated by poverty and crime, face. But “Imperial Dreams” is topical in the era of Black Lives Matter for  its tackling of issues that continue to be relevant to the lives of black people in America, and that the movement continues to organize around, including mass incarceration (which predominantly affects black men), racial profiling, police harassment and violence (also mostly targeted at black men) — as well as the bureaucracy that hinders the chances of people with criminal records who are trying to go straight.

With nowhere to turn, Bambi sleeps in his car with his son, reading him bedtime stories that he wrote. Bambi’s determined to succeed within a system that’s clearly working almost to ensure that he doesn’t succeed, and it pushes back really hard: A visit to the DMV devolves into an exasperating dilemma of mutually conflicting conditions: he can’t get a job because he doesn’t have a driver’s license; he can’t get a driver’s license because he owes child support, which he can’t pay, because he doesn’t have a job; he can’t find stable housing for himself and his son because he doesn’t have a job; and his son, the one force that’s preventing him from falling back into his old lifestyle, is eventually taken away from him by Child Protective Services.

First-time writer-director Malik Vitthal skirts clichés by not allowing his protagonist to self-destruct in the face of the incredible adversity that he isn’t able to immediately overcome. Instead, quite the opposite happens. Doors close in every direction Bambi turns. Besides his powerful bond with his son, his ability to write, and a relentlessly strong faith in himself, are all he has in his favor. And he holds on tightly to each.

Boyega carries the film with his ability to be both vulnerable and project a toughness and confidence as a character that lives the life that Bambi does, while bringing his own kind of charisma to it. The complexity of his character challenges simplified stereotypes of gang life and, instead, foregrounds the circumstances that directly influence their actions. Instead of framing his problems as rooted in hackneyed ideas like violence or a lack of morality, it explicitly shows how poverty and the system play essential roles in aggravating the day-to-day.

But there’s an even broader significance to this very intimate film. It was shot on location at the Imperial Courts housing project in the Watts area of Los Angeles, which becomes another character in the film, alternating between a feeling of community and a place where danger lurks around every corner. Once the epicenter of major racial uprisings — the Watts Rebellion in 1965, and the Los Angeles Uprising in 1992 — Imperial Courts is now a relatively ignored, but still economically deprived, majority African-American neighborhood.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, the ghosts of Watts and Rodney King — both incited by violent confrontations between African-Americans and the police — rise again. “Black lives matter” has become a rallying cry in light of clear evidence that the American criminal justice system is failing its black citizens. So when Boyega cries “Black Lives Matter” at a rally thousands of miles away in London, he’s also speaking to eliminating racial inequity in a criminal justice system that disproportionately affects characters like the one he plays in “Imperial Dreams.”

The dying words of Eric Garner and George Floyd, “I can’t breathe,” have become a slogan for a movement led by primarily young African Americans calling for greater equality. That movement speaks to the circumstances faced by many who are being choked by a system that treats different races and classes of people unequally.

Bambi may as well be screaming “I can’t breathe” as he leaves one prison, only to enter another, suffocated by the violence of poverty — and a system that either doesn’t care about his attempt at rehabilitating himself, or seems designed to see him fail, despite having paid his debt.

The film’s message is virtuous: It argues that the willingness of young black men like Bambi to live by the law, has to be met by a system that is just as ready to look out for the needs of its most vulnerable. But instead, as Americans are witnessing today, the government has treated the most vulnerable members of its society in shameful, punitive ways. It’s gratifying to see Boyega speak to truth to power — and “Imperial Dreams” proves he’s done his homework.

“Imperial Dreams” is streaming on Netflix.

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