It’s hard to believe that John Singleton’s generation-defining film Boyz n the Hood came out 23 years ago, in 1991, introducing audiences to a part of Los Angeles that’s a world away from Hollywood. It’s even harder to believe that South Central is still just as hard a place to live and thrive now as it was then. Malik Vitthal’s first feature, Imperial Dreams, which grew out of a Sundance Lab project and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this week, aims to tell a modern story of hope amidst the gang-ridden streets of Watts, and it largely succeeds. It’s received standing ovations at screenings and the praise keeps mounting for its star, 21-year-old British actor John Boyega (Attack the Block).
“There’s always going to be poverty,” the film’s producer Jonathan Schwartz, who has also been behind Sundance hits in previous years including Like Crazy and Smashed, tells EW. “We wanted to make a film that’s socially important, but not preachy and not cliché.”
Imperial Dreams was polished just moments before the festival began in Park City last week and was shot this past fall in the tough neighborhood where the story takes place. Schwartz says it was imperative to director Vitthal and the producers that they keep the film local and shoot it in the projects. “We did a lot of outreach, we had barbeques in Watts, we cast people from the neighborhood in many of the roles,” he says. “You have to come in [to the neighborhood] with respect and caring.”
But while the film has uplifting moments, the picture it paints of South Central L.A. still portrays a gangland where guns are everywhere, nighttime is harrowing, and the urban poor are road-blocked at every turn to try to make a better life. The film follows Bambi (Boyega) a young man just out of prison, we learn, for aggravated assault, who is a single father looking after his son, Day, played stoically by twins Ethan and Justin Coach, while Day’s mother (Keke Palmer) is in prison for another crime. Bambi’s passion is writing – he had a story published by McSweeney’s while he was behind bars. The story is based on Bobby Yay Yay Jones, a man from the projects whom Vitthal met while researching the film who, like Bambi, dreamt of becoming a writer.
Bambi lost the lottery growing up where he did, and “might have been a Rhodes scholar” had he been born elsewhere, Schwartz adds. But he is played skillfully and with enough of an edge by Boyega that he’s not entirely likeable. Unlike the wrong-place-wrong-time story of Oscar Grant played to much acclaim by Michael B. Jordan in last year’s Sundance breakout Fruitvale Station, Boyega’s Bambi is a product of the neighborhood as much as he’s trying to break free from it. He’s trying to do the right thing, but his built up anger and dark past sneak up on him when he’s urged to go back to his previous life of crime by his Uncle Shrimp (Glenn Plummer) to make ends meet.
Also central to Imperial Dreams is its music. Like several other films featured at Sundance this year – including No No: A Dockumentary, scored by the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz – the soundtrack is done by a well-known artist, in this case L.A. music producer and performer Flying Lotus. He created the film’s original score, alongside several additional tracks, that fit the story’s dark tone and capture the Wild West feel of the Los Angeles Vitthal portrays.
Imperial Dreams screens Friday at the Sundance Film Festival, which runs through Jan. 26 in Park City, Utah.