There’s a moment in Netflix's new film, Imperial Dreams, where Bambi, a 21-year-old reformed gang member living in his car with his 4-year-old son Day, submits his novel to a publisher in hopes that he'll finally be able to realize his dream of becoming a writer. It's a moment of hope that's crushed in the next scene: Bambi is confronted by child protective services after the police find Day wandering around the neighborhood with a deep cut on his arm.
Bambi, played by John Boyega, explains that his brother, who was supposed to be watching Day, lost track of the boy for just a second. But the concerned CPS worker informs him that Bambi's now on their radar for accidentally putting his child at risk. It's a tense exchange that underscores Imperial Dreams' villain: a system built to protect the impoverished that ultimately ends up hurting them.
Despite the fact that Bambi, who just finished serving his prison sentence for assault, struggles to find a job and stable housing, he moves through the world with a sense of purpose and determination that in another film would likely lead to his making it off the street and living happily ever. Whereas other films about poverty mine hardships like Bambi's for an uplifting emotional payoff, Imperial Dreams instead highlights how poverty keeps people trapped with little possibility of escape, even when they’re freed from prison.
In 2005, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that three-quarters of former inmates reported that finding stable work immediately after their release was “nearly impossible.” Five years after being released, only 40% of respondents reported being able to find a full-time job. Imperial Dreams takes that same harsh reality and distills it down into a story that’s at once specific to Bambi and reflective of the structural challenges faced by those living life after incarceration.
Bambi understands the basic steps to making his life objectively better. He needs to find a job so he can afford a place to live and food to eat. But the actual process of realizing those goals is riddled with barriers to entry that are compounded by his blackness and criminal history. Imperial Dreams is the perfect companion piece to Ava DuVernay's 2016 documentary 13th, which took a sober look at the U.S.'s systemic incarceration of black men. That same system of economic and social disenfranchisement shapes and influences the way Bambi moves (and doesn’t move) through the world.
"The hood is the cruelest of prisons. The most unusual of punishments," Bambi muses to himself as he works on his novel. "You're born into it. And when you're born in prison, you don't know what to do with freedom."
In one scene, Bambi learns that he can't apply for a new driver's license because he owes $15,000 in back child support payments. Confused as to when he entered into an agreement to pay child support, Bambi learns from a well-meaning governmental worker that his incarcerated girlfriend was automatically enrolled in the process without either of them knowing. How, Bambi asks the worker, is he supposed to go job-hunting to pay off those expenses if he can't even legally drive his car?
Every incremental step forward Bambi makes is offset by a drawback seemingly crafted to ensure he never moves too far away from the circumstances that led to his mother's drug addiction and his uncle's drug-running. While Bambi is keenly aware of the benefits he'd enjoy by going legit, he has every reason to consider falling back on old habits to make quick, easy, illegal money, if only to support his family.
Though Bambi’s pain is unrelenting, the despair that permeates Imperial Dreams never feels melodramatic. In fact, it tells a story about the banality of poverty and the maze of bureaucracy that enables it. Imperial Dreams isn't a feel-good movie meant to give you hope that Bambi's life will finally become better.
We’re supposed to have the distinct feeling that, for all of his talent, whatever future success he may find will pale in comparison to the potential he had. No matter how talented a writer he may be or how badly he wants to provide for his son, Bambi's living in the shadow of a system that was never designed to rehabilitate him. Bambi understands that and Imperial Dreams insists that you do, too.