Skip to main content

Netflix’s Imperial Dreams and the Need for Empathy

Imperial Dreams

I recently saw the 2014 film Imperial Dreams, and it reminded me once again how important empathy is. Before being elected to his first presidential term, Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope that empathy “is at the heart of my moral code, and it is how I understand the Golden Rule—not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes.” In 2010 in a commencement address at the University of Michigan, President Obama gave one of the best speeches of his presidency. In it he urged graduates to broaden their sympathies, to overcome narrowness of vision.

If we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we become more polarized, more set in our ways. That will only reinforce and even deepen the political divides in this country. . . . If you're somebody who only reads the editorial page of the New York Times, try glancing at the page of the Wall Street Journal once in a while. If you're a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website. It may make your blood boil; your mind may not be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. It is essential for our democracy.

Walter Moss: As an old white male living in a small town (a demographic that gave the most support to Trump), I need to see films like Imperial Dreams, directed by the young African American director Malik Vitthal.

As an old white male living in a small town (a demographic that gave the most support to Trump), I need to see films like Imperial Dreams, directed by the young African American director Malik Vitthal. Like other excellent artistic works in other genres about people very different than myself, it helps me empathize with those who experience life differently. In this case with a young black man fresh out of prison who returns to his childhood Los Angeles Watts neighborhood. (On the value of empathy in literature, see here for George Saunders’s on illegal immigrants and here for empathy in historical writing.)

As the film’s Bambi (John Boyega), a young man just released from prison reflects (all quotes from film script):

"The hood is the cruelest of prisons."

"The most unusual of punishments."

"You're born into it."

. . . .

"They don't even have to build walls to keep people in."

"And when you're born in prison, you don't know what to do with freedom."

Recommended for You

"No matter how shiny they make it."

What strikes us most about Bambi’s post-prison life is how hard it must be for an ex-con like him to avoid returning to prison, but instead carve out for himself a meaningful life. While he was in prison, his Uncle Shrimp cared for his pre-school son, Daytone (Day)—the boy's mother is also incarcerated—but Shrimp now kicks Day out of his house because Bambi will not do a drug run for him. The young father and son, having nowhere else to live, then begin sleeping overnight in Bambi's old car, which Bambi and a friend push to a parking spot at an apartment complex.

Bambi has written a short story and gotten it published while in prison. He continues to write, but realizes he must get a job (and not a criminal one) in order to provide for his son and himself. Despite his efforts, however, he is not able to do this. Having a driver's license would have helped him, but that proves impossible because he did not pay child support. As he tells a clerk,

How was I supposed to pay child support when I was in jail?

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

I gotta get a job to pay child support. To get a job I have to have a driver's license, but to get a driver's license I still need to pay child support.

Imperial Dreams portrays well some of the additional trials and hardships that an ex-con like Bambi might have to endure. He is harassed by a detective named Hernandez and his black female partner (played by Veep's Sufe Bradshaw); while on the street with Day he sees his cousin get gunned down; he and Day visit Day’s mother in prison; and toward the end of the film, the boy is taken from him and placed in foster care.

But Bambi remains resilient, and does not despair. Toward the end a voice over states, “And though this loss is devastating . . . you know . . . that in time . . . you'll both [Bambi and Day] be baptized as winners.”

Besides excellent acting, the film benefits from its setting, dialogue, and rap music, all of which seem authentic to this reviewer, limited though his experiences may be. This is director Vitthal’s first major full-length movie, and we can hope that his talent continues to mature and provide us with more insightful films.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss