March 16, 2016
Two years ago, Imperial Dreams won the audience award for the low-budget NEXT section at Sundance Film Festival.
The film was well-received, but after John Boyega received the role of Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, director Malik Vitthal and co made the strategic decision to hold off on distribution until after the star was well-known.
The San Diego Foundation hosted an exclusive screening of the film as part of the Future40 series, followed by a talk with director Malik Vitthal.
This event tied in nicely with a previous Future40 discussion that I attended at City College with Scott Budnick of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition: A Panel of Ex-Prisoners.
Imperial Dreams features Bambi, a 21-year old who is released from prison but struggles to reform his life and care for his young son in Watts, Los Angeles when surrounded by the same gang- and drug-filled environment and the structural barriers that make it difficult to escape the lifestyle.
Watch the trailer here:
The film is inspired by true events in the life of Bobby “Yay Yay” Jones, and depicts some of the hardships that lead to such high recidivism rates. For instance, Bambi struggles with finding housing and employment. It’s only more difficult because he aspires to be a writer, but needs to find a steady source of income.
I thought the film was amazing and real. It was thought-provoking and emotional.
It shows a completely different side of John Boyega than what I remembered from The Force Awakens – much more serious and intense. The son is played by two twins: Justin and Ethan Coach (didn’t learn this until the credits). All of the supporting actors are great and the film is really focused on the characters, with many close-ups and relatively quiet scenes.
In the discussion with Vitthal, there were a few notable points that were brought up:
When you have less resources, you gotta get more creative.
Patience and perseverance: “You can fight through this if you control yourself.” Parolees are forced to contain their rage and be diplomatic in spite of such shitty situations.
Structural barriers: Cheaper housing is in the projects, but there aren’t many employment opportunities in the neighborhood. Public transportation is dangerous because it crosses into other gangs’ territories. Therefore, transport by car is seen as the only viable option. However, it is complicated getting a driver’s license as well. There is a cycle where you need a car to get to work to make money, but you need money to get a driver’s license/car to get to work to make money. In the film, he has to pay off thousands of dollars in child support before he is able to apply for a driver’s license.
Love: “The love that him and all the people in his family had was almost deeper because, it’s like, you don’t know if that person is gonna be there tomorrow.” In Bobby’s real life, this was an important part of community and family interactions because of the uncertainty of the future.
An older white male from the audience asked if Vitthal was tempted to rewrite the script to create a fictional happy ending to Bobby’s situation. I was confused by the question because I felt the reality of the ending was part of what made the film so powerful.
Vitthal explained that not all “happy endings” are the same – for someone who grew up in such an environment, simply being alive is a major reason for optimism. Moreover, the change in perspective and finding strength to choose a different path to overcome obstacles can be considered a positive step.
I would highly recommend watching this movie if you have the chance.
You can watch the Q&A between Scott Lewis of Voice of San Diego and Malik Vitthal here: