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Netflix, the DVD service turned streaming giant, has evolved and changed with the times. The company has stepped beyond its humble beginnings to become a significant player in the entertainment world. A huge part of the success of Netflix is the continued development of original content. From House of Cards to the Marvel series, Netflix has carved out a measure of success that rivals and, in some ways, surpasses the traditional cable channels. The company has become so large that it has entered the cultural lexicon via the famous phrase “Netflix and chill.” Recently, an opportunity to get some extended quality “Netflix and chill” time presented itself, and I gladly obliged.
Opening up the Netflix app and not seeing anything interesting in the “Top Picks for You” section, it was time to explore what Netflix promoted on the main page. The big promotion, at the time, was for Season one of Santa Clarita Diet. Not wanting to commit to a TV series and not being impressed with the remaining top 10 list, I explored the depths of Netflix and came across a film that just had the face of a young actor who I am certain is well on his way to superstardom. That actor was John Boyega, and the movie was the understated, intimate character piece Imperial Dreams. Imperial Dreams is one of those movies that does not seek to rebuild the urban drama genre, but instead, Director Malik Vitthal plays it like a loving tribute to the genre. Imperial Dreams wrestles with the problem convicted felons face, like rejection from society as a whole and the neighborhoods that created them. This movie follows the blueprint of other critically lauded urban classics like Boyz in the Hood, New Jack City, and Menace II Society.
The characters are the real stars of this film being anchored by John Boyega. Boyega does a fantastic job of shedding any preconceived notions you may have had of him and his acting potential. His performance as a recently paroled man named Bambi, who is equal parts talented and troubled. Bambi struggles as he tries to raise and guide his young son through the pitfalls of the Watts area of Los Angeles. Boyega proves to be an acting powerhouse giving the character of Bambi a fully realized character in ways that only the best actors in the world can. The movie itself is realistic in the process of rehabilitation and walking the line of balance in life.
The enjoyable moments that reward urban movie fans are the supporting cast. Bambi’s Uncle Shrimp is played by character actor Glenn Plummer, best known for his role as OG Bobby Johnson in the movie South Central. The cast surprises go further with the addition of Shrimp’s son Gideon being played by urban drama vet De’Aundre Bonds of films like The Wood, Get on the Bus, and Dope. Rounding out the cast with solid performances are Keke Palmer as Samaara, the mother of Bambi’s son, and Rotimi Akinosho (of Power fame) as Bambi’s half-brother Wayne who, like Bambi, is trying to make his way in the world through a different path. This cast does make the world of Imperial Dreams have the gritty lived-in vibe that sets the movie and its central star John Boyega up to succeed.
As you can tell, I hold this film in very high regard, high enough to where it is on my top 10 list of films this year. However, I could not help but wonder why this did not instantly trigger a notification or suggestion from Netflix. Urban dramas are a genre that I routinely watch on the site. So why is this something I did not even get a “Because you watched ______,” but something like Santa Clarita Diet, which is not my typical thing, is all over the site and heavily suggested for me? Netflix does an excellent job of promoting Netflix-created and purchased content through trailers, promotional information, and commercials both on and off the internet. This time it seems as if they jettisoned any promotion of this film outside of John Boyega’s Twitter account. Now full disclosure, this film is about three years old, originally purchased by Netflix after it was selected for the Audience Award at the 2014 Sundance Festival. The movie was filmed before John Boyega became a megastar, but after The Force Awakens, they could have marketed it as a John Boyega–starring vehicle. Netflix did this movie a disservice by promoting something more star-studded like Santa Clarita Diet. While I did eventually watch Santa Clarita Diet and found it moderately enjoyable in a Showtime series type of way, Imperial Dreams was something better suited to my personal taste. This brings up a problem that could be just showing itself since Netflix has gotten significantly larger: as Netflix attracts bigger names and directors, smaller projects like Imperial Dreams could find themselves struggling to get the same attention. Netflix is creating films with a huge blockbuster budget with Will Smith and David Ayers (Bright), Brad Pitt (War Machine) and Martin Scorsese/Robert De Niro (The Irishman). These are all films that could have been distributed in the studio system off these names alone. Imperial Dreams would likely struggle to find some wide distribution in the studio method. Netflix has become a juggernaut because of the way that they embrace both well-known projects and in large part those shows and films that were rejected by big Hollywood.
We love you regardless, Netflix, but don’t forget what helped get you to the big dance.