Imperial Dreams (dir. Malik Vitthal, 2017) – Love for his family inspires Bambi to rise above a life of gang violence and broken dreams.
An inspired character study and a thoughtful introspection of the rehabilitation system. Malik Vitthal’s directorial debut delivers a powerful story of hope, bolstered by John Boyega’s impeccable performance.
It has taken some time for the 2014 Sundance hit to arrive on Netflix. But three years have done nothing to diminish the relevance of Imperial Dreams. This hard-hitting drama shines unforgiving light on the faults of an extant system that traps ex-convicts in an unyielding cycle of violence, if only for survival.
John Boyega plays 21-year-old Bambi, a former gangster determined to turn his life around for his son Daytone (Justin/Ethan Coach). But the odds are stacked against him. His partner Samaara (Keke Palmer) is in jail. The state is suing him for child support. He is unable to get a license and consequently, a job. Then, there is his criminal record, which prevents him staying with his half-brother Wayne (Rotimi).
A desperate Bambi returns to the home of his cousin Gideon (De’aundre Bonds) and Uncle Shrimp (Glenn Plummer), who want him back in the family’s criminal business. When Bambi refuses, he is kicked out and forced to live in his car with Daytone. With his parole officer and child services on his tail, Bambi finds it tougher every day to stay on the honest path.
His poignant story is a resonant one. Pressured to reintegrate into society against a ticking clock, ex-prisoners often struggle with stigma and the lack of support from the state. Constant profiling by the law enforcement makes their rehabilitation tougher still. Poverty drives them back on the streets, where the illegal trade stands as a tempting option and an easy way out.
Incarceration never quite ends, only shifting from behind bars to a city-sized prison. The situation is bleak, troubling, and provocative. But the dark social critique offers a glimpse of hope in Bambi’s future through his persistence and faith. Rooted in stark realism, his character’s complexity refutes reductive negative stereotypes of the gang culture and instead, explicates their actions forced by the hand of circumstance.
Driven by the love for Daytone, Bambi works hard towards getting his autobiography published. Every night till then, he narrates his past pains and struggles to his son. Director Malik Vitthal’s inspired script sees this affecting chronicle take on a life of its own. Every line is a reminder to Bambi, a cautionary tale to his son, and above all, a powerful symbol of their fighting chance.
Getting back on track is nowhere near easy, and the bittersweet end leaves some questions unanswered. This potentially makes for a less-than-satisfying conclusion. But a moving lead performance ensures otherwise.
Delivering each word impassioned with pulsing emotions, John Boyega packs an emotional punch in his portrayal of Bambi’s rising above all odds, igniting new hope for a better tomorrow. This alone, if not for the film’s authentic motifs, is reason enough why Imperial Dreams deserves to be seen by more.