Courtesy of Netflix

February 14, 2017

Imperial Dreams: A Marketable Storyline in a Political Light

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If you were to invest just under a thousand dollars in Netflix stock when they went public in 2002, if you loyally or stubbornly held on to those stocks and invested another thousand dollars when shares hit their low that same year, today you would have a return on your investment of 20,361.42 percent.  Your under $2,000 would be worth over $400,000.  You’d probably have watched a lot of movies and you’d definitely be rich.  From a website offering 925 movies available for snail-mail rental, to an online streaming service, to producing and debuting original content, Netflix has scorned its skeptics and outperformed its competitors. Imperial Dreams, released on Feb. 3 as a Netflix original, continues the Netflix phenomenon. I believe in buying low and selling high, but Netflix just might be worth the splurge.

To Netflix’s fault, however, the subtitled blurb under Imperial Dreams sells the film as another Freedom Writes or The Pursuit of Happyness. The story revolves around a father who struggles “against all odds” to rid himself of gang violence and earn a future; but, ironically, Imperial Dreams plays out in an un-cinematic light. It unfolds in a documentary-like style that makes viewers forget fictions and platitudes. The camera turns away from the oversold comeback story and focuses in on the entirely unglamorous first steps away from destitution. Imperial Dreams tears down the mythicized struggling, single father figure and replaces it with an unfiltered, young man—in this case Bambi—trying to find his way. The unknowns appear so convincing in Bambi that even he seems doubtful of his extrication from the very real recidivism rates in low-income cities. The film, the actors and the director retain a political awareness. Because behind each imprisoned number lies a complicated web of distress, desperation and temptation.  It exposes the most unattractive threads of its over-dramatized counterparts and constructs a film that remains compelling only by its shocking authenticity.

Imperial Dreams, a film that focuses on a convicted felon turned aspiring writer, forces itself to offer a new angle on what has become hackneyed, dramatic movie sales. Director Malik Vitthal roughens up the edges of a story that usually ends in long awaited relief for an emotionally tired audience. Vitthal instead scripts a human response to ongoing conflict and adversity. Within Bambi’s endless fight for independence from a broken rehabilitation system and a fragmented family, Vitthal captures fleeting smiles and unexpected companionship. The director highlights the brutal impossibility of Bambi’s  struggle but simultaneously captures the resilience of individuals with even fractional hope and tiny—five-year-old size—support. Despite the thriller-like drama in Bambi’s life, the gunshots and drugs and police arrests, Imperial Dreams retains a realistic quality in its interspersed moments of serenity.

Like the string lights hanging in Bambi’s car, the film moves from a dark thread to dim light in Bambi’s life. Unlike other melodramatic films of its type, Imperial Dreams follows a steady storyline with no definite low and no discernible high.  From the red and white dread of a police car’s siren to the peaceful luminescence in a string of Christmas bulbs to the dim, danger in streetlights to the bright sunrise, Vitthal captures only natural, mundane turns from dark, bitter misery to vivid, uninhibited benevolence.  Bambi’s resilience in the face of very little progress becomes the film’s most striking facet. Imperial Dreams includes every intricacy of fighting back against corruption—the kind that develops inside from frustration with a broken system and the all consuming breed that threatens to flood Bambi’s sanity—but it also embraces his fleeting smiles and unprotected laughs.

Not including the frequent violent bursts, the movie proceeds un-dramatically and, in that way, serves a simple purpose. Just as Bambi shows no convincing progress, the United States’ incarceration and recidivism rates persist unabated. Bambi’s story may have no clear apogee or nadir but his light-strung life runs like a broken circuit. We all exist from day to day between conductive wire — bored, sad, apathetic — and ignited bulb — happy, excited, motivated — but these wiry moments in Bambi’s life hit too low and his lights burn too dimly. The sprinkled in toothy smiles save Bambi and the audience from reaching a depression but the overall helplessness in the protagonist’s life remains ever present. Vitthal’s realistic lens colors Bambi as a human, one who smiles, laughs and hugs, in order to highlight the livable yet anguished conditions in a broken prison system. Without hitting a cinematic breaking point, the protagonist allows viewers to see the depravity of his situation and the sadness in his prospects.

Imperial Dreams may just be a redevelopment of an old, tired storyline but some narratives need replaying. Movies like Freedom Writers, The Pursuit of Happyness and Imperial Dreams bring to light issues that remain pertinent to generations of viewers.  Each new take on the same impoverished U.S. city illustrates an unchanging problem through a distinctive lens. When Netflix first came to be nineteen years ago, the market rejected another movie-rental hub. When the company went public in 2002, stocks initially plunged. Consumers, at first, didn’t know what they were missing. The market could hold another movie distributer.  Perhaps a similar story can be told about Bambi and Hollywood’s recurrent characterization of the young man trying to break an impoverished trend. Imperial Dreams provides an untainted, realistic perspective audiences haven’t yet seen.  It fills an unglamorous void in the overly cinematic poverty picture.  It proves that Hollywood and audiences can handle another new take on the young ex-convict trope.

Julia Curley is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences.  She can be reached at [email protected].