Last year at Sundance, Ryan Coogler made a debut splash with Fruitvale Station. It was the true story of a young African-American trying to keep it on the straight and narrow while providing for his son – on the last day of his life. Familiarity may breed contempt, especially in the confines of social-changing independent cinema. Though the dramatic license taken with Coogler’s tale exemplifies the many questions and problems that exist within its martyrdom, a movie of pure fiction can increase its level of reality. Malik Vitthal’s feature debut has the familiar ring of inner city struggles that we have seen before on screen but does so with confidence and enough starkness to keep us rooting for its protagonist.
Bambi (John Boyega) makes his journey home from jail to find his son, Day, living under less than ideal conditions. Grandma is a crackhead passed out on the floor. His cousin Gideon (De’aundre Bonds) is walking around with a bullet in his arm and Uncle Shrimp (Glenn Plummer) keeps afloat with minor drug deals. Feeling he can trust his nephew more than his own son, Shrimp is hoping Bambi will take the offer to transport some Oxycontin across state lines. Bambi wants none of it though. He wants to keep it clean.
Bambi’s brother, Wayne (Rotimi), appears to be on that very path with his own apartment and a suit to show you how serious he is. Aware that his Uncle’s place is not the best environment for him or his son, Bambi rigs up his stationary car as a temporary place of shelter while he goes to look for work. The circular catch-22’s involved for parolees to get a job, a license or the internet access to get either continues to delay the next step to becoming the writer he wants to be. His baby mama, Samaara (Keke Palmer), is still in jail, a pair of harassing detectives want to know more about the transgressions Gideon is hiding from and Uncle Shrimp just won’t let up about that road trip.
The striking thing about putting the story into words is just how self-aware the name recognition is. Our lead character is the babe in the woods who has, more or less, lost his mother. The cousin’s biblical connotations carry the burden of being the deliverer against false idols. Their father figure has chosen a moniker that reflects the jumbo sort of oxymoron of believing they are a bigger fish than they actually are. Bambi is a character not so unlike the real Oscar Grant III. He clearly cares enough about his kid, but knows just when to curb the fiery anger he holds inside. Where the Oscar of Fruitvale Station had that flaw in his character that led to many of his troubles, Bambi is clearly trying to learn from the hinted-at incident that landed him in jail in the first place. and knows that avoidance rather than confrontation will keep him on the right path.
Fruitvale Station was a film that favored fate and coincidence rather than multi-layered motivations. Imperial Dreams also restricts its point of view to its lead but has the benefit of allowing both him and us the journey of uncertain discovery. Michael B. Jordan received deserved praise for his breakthrough role in Coogler’s film and John Boyega, known primarily as the pack leader from sci-fi comedy Attack the Block, rightfully should earn equal merits for a performance filled with balance and honor. He presents the kind of positive reinforcement that should be held up in the African-American community and a reminder to the system that second chances deserve to be filled. Films like Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society may hold up a necessary mirror to the problems of inner cities, but they are ones we would just as soon crack and forget about; Imperial Dreams examines the kind of hope worth remembering.