The cinematic language of classic urban dramas Boyz 'n the Hood and Menace II Society form the basis for Imperial Dreams, the confident directorial debut by Malik Vitthal. While this passionate, hopeful look at inner-city life in Watts, Los Angeles deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as both of those films, to simply drop them all in the same bucket would be doing Vitthal and his commanding star John Boyega (Attack the Block) a disservice, as Imperial Dreams bucks the usual "ghetto drama" trend in its depiction of a father who refuses to fall back into the street life.
Boyega plays Bambi, an ex-con recently released from prison after serving a two-year bid for assault with a deadly weapon. While behind bars he kept his sanity through writing, getting one of his stories published in McSweeney's. Returning to his South Central L.A. neighborhood, Bambi wants nothing more than to take care of his young son, Day, and pursue his dreams of becoming a writer. But any aspirations he may have are contingent on his surviving long enough to do so, and avoiding the fall back into old habits. The people closest to him don't make that any easier. His Uncle Shrimp (Glenn Plummer, from the movie South Central), raised him to be a soldier and gives Bambi an ultimatum: get back in the game or hit the bricks. Bambi's mother is a crackhead sprawled out on the floor half the time, and his cousin Gideon (De'Aundre Bonds) is wanted for murder and is being pursued by a rival gang. Meanwhile, Day's mother (Keke Palmer) is in jail, and Bambi's younger brother Wayne (Rotimi Akinosho) is tempted to turn to crime so he can pay for college.
The obstacles placed in front of Bambi are familiar ones, and don't just involve the pull of the streets. Vitthal paints a bleak picture of rundown South Central, where even the police and a Catch 22 of government beurocracy actively work against those trying to walk the straight and narrow. Bambi is told, literally a day after being released, that he needs to find a job now or get tossed back behind bars. But he can't get a job without an I.D., which he can't get because he owes child support Day's mother never asked for, which he can't pay because he can't get a job. The cops harass him at every turn, even threatening to throw him to Gideon's enemies if he doesn't talk.
With recidivism so common in this world, Bambi's steadfast decision not to take the easy way out is a fresh take on the material and a wholly positive portrayal of an African-American parent trying to make all the right decisions for his child. While there are a number of characters that are part of Bambi's troubled life, it's the bond between him and Day that is the film's core. Even when they are suddenly homeless and living out of Bambi's car, he doesn't lose sight of putting Day above all else. Reading to his son nightly and tries to keep him out of harm's way, which proves increasingly difficult as their situation grows more desperate. When Day begins waking up to nightmares and freaking out over distant gunfire, the reaction from father and son is heartbreaking. Only occasionally does the film lose momentum, and sometimes the gangland cliches are too obvious to ignore, but throughout it Boyega's towering performance resonates. Imperial Dreams shows just how difficult it is for black men to beat a system that seems stacked against them, but leaves room to hope growing up in the ghetto isn't always a death sentence.