Black Influence in Entertainment: Malik Vitthal on Working in Service to Your Community

Audio Description

Get ready for some audio whiplash! James Seth Thompson and acclaimed filmmaker, Malik Vitthal, director of the newly released film, “Body Cam,” engage in a refreshingly candid discussion that ends nowhere near where it begins. Listen as Malik shares his dedication to driving meaningful messages through film and working in service to his community. James finds himself the interviewee and offers invaluable financial planning guidance to Malik. This pivot underscores that no matter one’s stature in life, with a lack of access to certain types of education, experience, and exposure, we can’t inherently know certain answers that others may take for granted.

Transcript

00:00 - 00:09

Today, we're airing a great interview I recorded a few weeks back with esteemed film director Malik Vitthal. As an artist, making an impact on others is a priority for Malik.

00:10 - 00:41

And as a Black director in Hollywood, an industry with incredible power and clout, the influence that comes with the job can be a big and huge responsibility. Listen in as Malik talks about leveraging his filmmaking to drive messages important to him and his communities and listen up for a surprise twist when I actually become the interviewee and Malik asks for guidance revealing that for Black creators in the entertainment industry, there's often a lack of financial knowhow.

00:41 - 00:51

And you know what? It's all good because that's what I'm here for. Welcome to Changing the Trajectory

00:51 - 01:23

where we'll focus on the lasting impact we have the power to create a multicultural markets and communities. I'm James Seth Thompson, Bernstein's Head of Diverse Market Strategy. I'm excited today to be joined by Malik Vitthal. Malik co-wrote his feature directorial debut, Imperial Dreams, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival and won the audience award for Best of Next. His new film, Bodycam, starring Mary J. Blige, is out now on DVD and available on all digital platforms. Malik, I'm so glad you're here. Thanks for joining me today. Yeah, it's a real honor and pleasure.

01:23 - 01:40

So I'm excited to jump into all this stuff. And by the way, I told my wife I was having a conversation with you. She was like, Is Mary J. Blige going to be here? I said, no, she's not going to join. And she left. I get it. I get it. Awesome.

01:40 - 02:13

You know, Change the Trajectory. When you think about the episodes we've had, we really have focused on the influence we all have on our lives and our wealth. But today, I really want to focus on you and your work. I really think there's some intentional and meaningful things that you look to achieve through the great things you've accomplished. But before we jump into that, I'd like to ask you a very broad, easy question.

02:13 - 02:23

Yeah. Who is Malik? You know, you talk about influence. I think Malik is a product of his family.

02:24 - 02:50

You know, my mom raised me on her own and early on she got into and became curious in Eastern practices and we ended up living on different spiritual communities. And through that, she was able to kind of continue to have her own job and her own business and raise her son while getting support from a community.

02:51 - 03:16

And in that community, there were a lot of artists and most of the work that came from there was an act of devotion. So early on, I kind of learned that when you create something, no matter what it is, a meal, or a piece of music, or a film, is just in service to your community, whether it be local or global.

03:16 - 03:30

And that is kind of the, I guess, foundation of who I am as a filmmaker. Malik was born and raised in Los Angeles and graduated from the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts.

03:30 - 04:00

In addition to his films, he also directed some very powerful commercials. Talk to me a little bit about the message, meaning and intentionality, about the works that you produce and direct. You know, some of them were aligned with this idea of the talk, you know, those uncomfortable conversations we as Black Americans have to have with our kids. Talk to us a little bit about that, because I think this idea of changing the trajectory is actually embedded in the intentionality of the work you do.

04:01 - 04:34

Yeah, it's you know, that's a lovely thing about stories is we get to engage with people. And my work has been, you know, as I mentioned before, built around service and offering back to our global community and stories that need to be told. And, you know, luckily with commercials, having made Imperial Dreams, people, after they see that film, they have a sense of my intentions as an artist. So things end up kind of aligning towards my voice that are offered to me.

04:35 - 04:59

And so with a film or a commercial like PNG's, a talk that's illuminating these discussions that parents are having with their children, these tough conversations, which is part of Black culture, as that was something that my grandmother said to me when I wanted to go to school at USC film school. You know, she said, well, just make sure that whatever you do really

05:00 - 05:18

stands out, so that you can continue to move towards your ultimate goal, because you do have to be much better. I think we want to illuminate these truths so that we can start a conversation and eventually create a place and platform for connection to start, and empathy.

05:19 - 05:52

I think empathy stems from understanding other people's perspectives. If we can share perspectives on all sides and different class structures, it helps people understand what someone else is going through so that they don't bring their own perspective to someone else's perspective. Yeah, being open to ideas different than your own is key. Viewing things from multiple perspectives allows us as individuals on a micro level and as a nation on a macro level to move forward.

05:52 - 06:25

We then talked about his sports history, knowing he was a very serious athlete. I was surprised to learn that he, especially as a Black kid in LA, played ice hockey. And then we dove into how ice hockey opened doors for him. When we talk about access and influence, you know, it was you know, I originally was raised in Oakland until I was eight. And then I moved to Agoura Hills, which is a suburb outside of Los Angeles. I lived up in the mountains there, but I went to school, public school, down in the city and Agoura Hills and West Lake.

06:25 - 06:53

And then when I started playing ice hockey, my world kind of opened up even more because, you know, the coaches that I had and the people that were on my teams, you know, just, I learned about other things. My first ice hockey coach was the president of distribution at Fox. And so, you know, you don't know anything as a kid. But I just had access to a different world as a young person and kind of seeing what they did.

06:53 - 07:21

And then I was lucky that hockey led me into all these different circles. Eventually, when I wanted to go to USC film school, I ended up playing hockey there. And like the connection that kind of helped me realize that it was possible to go to school there was also through hockey. So I certainly didn't expect to hear that hockey is the reason why you're in the industry. That's certainly something I didn't know.

07:21 - 07:23

It's inspiring nonetheless.

07:23 - 07:54

You also kind of made your way up to the silver screen through the Sundance Film Festival and different cinema labs and things like that. Talk to me a little bit about that journey, but not necessarily just the journey as Malik, but the journey as a Black Malik, producer, director, et cetera, et cetera. Yeah, it's all about access. And I was fortunate to really get a lot of access, you know, whether it be going to school at USC film school.

07:54 - 08:26

And then from there, no matter who you are, you, as a filmmaker, you kind of have to be your own professor and scientist and engineer and diplomat, and things get really balanced out when you're a filmmaker because you just have to be a hustler. Access is certainly key. I think every conversation I have and every roundtable we produce with great guests like you, the solution to any of the challenges we talk about, all the solutions, the opportunities that appear in front of us always starts with access.

08:27 - 08:35

There's some unique connectivity to the world we are experiencing today and the plot of Malik's new film, Bodycam. We'll have that conversation a little later.

08:35 - 09:04

But I first just had to ask, what are your thoughts about what's going on today? We find ourselves having these conversations about social justice and the impact on people, frankly, that are you and I, and also just the impact of COVID. Right. COVID has an impact on Black communities. I'm sure it's had an impact on you and in the work you do. But, you know, what are your thoughts? How are you feeling? I like to explore that with you a little bit.

09:05 - 09:32

Yeah, well, you know, I think, you know, so we come out of the Civil Rights era. Right. And everyone's kind of fighting for this equality. And then we get a chance to spread our wings. And from it, corporate structures and capitalism ends up taking the lead in our culture. And we become individuals and our principles and values kind of end up turning and

09:33 - 09:41

exploring new directions, and I think we're starting to witness that, and if we look at

09:42 - 10:09

what we value as a culture, it's celebrity and money, and that's some of the things that we put our faith in, whereas, you know, years ago our faith was built in things that were, you know, family, God, and, you know, our structure was built more around that, and then this all comes and it makes us look at ourselves and it makes us look at our communities and the people that

10:11 - 10:38

are having a hard time, this is even harder on them. Clearly, people feel like they're not being heard, and there's a lot of people getting hurt and there's a lot of people acting out of fear with that. And there's some horrific things happening and it can send people in fits of rage, you know. You know, I myself included, it's hard. It's hard to watch what's going on out there.

10:38 - 11:01

The nice thing is, I think, we're starting to look at our values and look at our principles and leaders are starting to step up. And I think a whole generation of young people are starting to ask themselves some really important questions from all communities. And they're looking at their life and going, what am I doing with this life?

11:01 - 11:34

And I think it's going to be really powerful because I think we needed this. You know, it's like we had this scab that fell off and, you know, reminded us that the wounds still needs application and we still need to continue to go forward. We then talked a little bit about his new film. A New York Times excerpt read, A murdered African American youth and police cover up drives Malik Vitthal's Bodycam, a supernatural event fantasy that is anything but subtle. It's timeliness, however, is undeniable.

11:35 - 12:00

With the investigations into the death of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery currently making news, this awkward hybrid of horror and social consciousness plucks at one of our country's rawest nerves. This points out how relevant Bodycam is to today's social climate pertaining to Black lives. But I would argue that Bodycam could have dropped at any point in the last 50 years and would still be every bit as resonant as it is today.

12:00 - 12:30

Yeah, I mean I mean, you know, for us, making the film, we wanted to be mindful that it wasn't about revenge. We want the audience to be aware that it's from Rene, who's played by Mary J. Blige, who plays it so elegantly. We want it to come from her perspective because as a police officer, she's all about service, and it's all about her moral courage. Moral courage is the hardest thing to do.

12:31 - 13:00

And I think that for us, that was really the core of the film, you know, so she's torn because she's a Black woman in the police force. And what does she do? She realizes that it's her job to do her service and she continues along that axis the whole film, and I think we're going to continue to get tested until as a group, we can stand up in those hard moments. These unfortunate things will happen, how do we recover for them?

13:02 - 13:12

You know, given your voice, given your role in Hollywood, what's next for you? What do you want to create? What do you want to influence with your influence?

13:13 - 13:42

Yeah, you know, I try to work on things that help me develop as a person, you know, and sharing that in a larger story, even if it ends up being something that goes global, that is made for a large amount of money. And it's a fun, entertaining film within it. You know, I want to kind of express some of the things that I'm working on as a human, or it can be whatever. You know, it's like a commercial that I'm pitching for right now.

13:42 - 14:07

I'm trying to get the local community involved. Or another project that I'm working on has some of the local community involved, people that inspired the film Imperial Dreams. So, you know, whatever it is, it's going to be built around just doing my portion. We then talked about the intentionality around involving his community.

14:07 - 14:27

You know, we all know that Hollywood could benefit from some more diversity, inclusion, and equity. However you want to look at that, whether it's just giving the opportunity or pay equity. Right. So how do you envision, as you continue to evolve and influence, making some of that stuff happen?

14:27 - 14:49

Yeah. So the Sundance Institute still has a program that serves and supports filmmakers that are 18 to 25. And so I've been a mentor with that for the past few years. That's a very important program because these are the storytellers of tomorrow.

14:49 - 15:19

So, you know, there's those folks and then there's the people that are local to me that I've started to get to know. I personally, I love making things, because you just get to be with a, you know, a large team. It's back to like a team sport. And, you know, with playing ice hockey, you know, there's a team that I was on that had guys from Alaska, from Canada, from Colorado and then from Southern California. So it was just, you know, we had all kinds of people on one team.

15:19 - 15:41

And that's how you get all the perspectives, you know. And so when I make my films, I end up having just a diverse team because I want to make sure that everyone is at the table. The basis of storytelling is the basis of being a human.

15:42 - 16:08

And look, I appreciate that perspective. You know, I think your remarks there land on this idea of what changing the trajectory is, right? I mean, everything is changing around us. Everything's evolving, whether it's the color of influencers, whether it's the intentionality of diversity, whether it's the evolution of wealth and wealth creators, you're certainly playing your part in your lane.

16:08 - 16:29

I appreciate having brothers like you who exist, who at least have that lens, right, to recognize that you can leverage your platform to to do things that you just mentioned. I appreciate that. We certainly could benefit from having a society that has more thought leaders along that ilk.

16:29 - 16:48

OK, so. Yeah, thanks. Well, I think we're going to end up... That's a great thing from all this. Mark my words. Twenty years from now or even ten years from now. Five years from now, all the kids that are going to university even now, they're questioning, kids that are in high school, they're questioning, what's my major?

16:48 - 17:14

I mean, what am I doing here on this planet? And they're able to see all the cracks that need a little support. Malik shared some ideas about passion projects beyond film he wants to pursue. Kind of want to just talk about some of the stuff that I've seen, just, you know, being here in South-Central LA, and the things that I want to personally do next.

17:14 - 17:49

I see the food insecurity. We got to look at the food that people are consuming in the inner city because, you know, you got to Watts. There's one grocery store, there's a Food for Less, and you know, there's a lot of people dying of COVID in low income communities because they don't have the proper health, they don't have access to good food. So I'm like, I want to get in touch with Jeff Bezos. I just want to connect with him and ask him, can we put a couple Whole Foods in South-Central Los Angeles and make this a model for the rest of the nation?

17:49 - 18:04

Because we got to start with the gut health of our community and then that helps the mental health. Our people are disappearing at a rapid rate because of this virus, because health isn't there.

18:04 - 18:17

So, yeah, look, these are pre-existing conditions, right? You drive through certain communities in LA, you drive through certain communities where I grew up in New York, there aren't banks, there's check cashing. Right.

18:18 - 18:49

There's fast food restaurants instead of more nutritious places. Those things are placed for a reason. There are certain areas that we live, where we were put there and we were intended to be kept there and excluded from all of the access that other communities had to really generate great livelihoods from a wealth and a health perspective.

18:49 - 19:23

So, you know, I think that work is certainly necessary. And I think your industry as a whole has some influence on really expediting how that stuff can happen. And we see some great actions by some great people, artists, entertainers. You know, one thing I want to make sure is everyone should realize that they have a part they can play. You don't have to be on the big screen to make an impact. You can make some very basic choices on a daily basis that can positively impact how you define your livelihood.

19:23 - 19:27

Mm hmm. So, yeah, that's it.

19:27 - 19:27

That's it.

19:28 - 20:01

And that would be my form of protest is give us access to good food, education, and jobs. And I think, we'll start to see, you know, then people can create what they want. They can start to chase their dreams. You know, it's real simple. People just want to be able to take care of their families and be safe, you know. Well, look, this has been awesome. I feel like we've known each other for a minute. And we've just had this really great conversation.

20:01 - 20:07

So any parting word or message that you want to share with the listeners to this podcast?

20:07 - 20:31

Yeah, I mean, if anyone's curious or wants to get interested in the film industry, especially people from communities that don't have as much access, just realize that there are thousands of jobs in the industries. And once you get started or once you get trained, or you can self train, you'll realize that there's a way to create a career for yourself.

20:32 - 20:50

And a lot of that just comes from, you know, just getting in there and figuring out what you want to do and stay persistent. You know, hopefully the doors will open up for you. Awesome. Malik, I look forward to following all of the great things you have in store. So thanks for joining us today. Yeah, thanks for having me.

20:50 - 21:25

I mean, it's been fantastic. This is where the conversation took a turn and did not end. We went on to have a poignant conversation and discussion about wealth, how one gets it, how one sustains it, the disadvantages that we face not having benefited from a lifetime of education, experience, and exposure to it. Malik took me by surprise with the urgency with which he wanted to discuss this. Whether you have a career in Hollywood or anywhere else, I think we can all benefit from the dialogue that followed. Maybe next time I'll learn not to say cut prematurely.

21:25 - 21:31

Yeah, thanks for having me. I mean, it's been fantastic. We didn't even talk about, though, the world stuff.

21:31 - 21:59

I mean, not that I don't have any wealth, but how do I get wealth? You used the word earlier. Access, good jobs, and access. I often talk about accumulation. Then allocation, right, I mean, you know, if you're an individual, it's about accumulating wealth through good paying jobs, you know, ownership, things like that.

22:00 - 22:24

If you're a business owner, entrepreneur, a lot of times you need access to resources to help you kind of build that legacy and build that entrepreneurial track. But, you know, I'm a firm believer that once you accumulate a certain level of asset, you have to move forward to the mindset of, how do I create sustainability.

22:25 - 22:45

And that's where wealth management comes into play. It's having real good deep discovery conversations to really recognize how you value wealth and what legacy do you want your wealth and your assets to create for you, your family, and your community.

22:46 - 23:15

So it really, really just starts with a conversation. If I speak for myself and probably the audience, I lack people to have that conversation. Yeah, you know what I'm saying, or, you know, most people that have money, you know, you feel uncomfortable being like, you know, so, you know, what do you invest in? You know what I'm saying, like, but I don't have many people to go and talk about it.

23:15 - 23:29

You know, you have or you need to build a circle of trusted advisers. Right. But each of those advisors need to have a very specific role. Don't hire me to do your legal and your tax work. Right.

23:29 - 23:58

Hire me and my team to help build this wealth legacy plan. But the other people need around the table is your lawyers, right, your CPA, your business management team, and then collectively you build a network around you where everyone is invested in creating the best path forward for Malik. Now, shameless plug, if you want to talk to somebody, we can just have a conversation off the air, we can do that.

23:58 - 24:27

That's not a problem. You know, good people you find through great networking, we really hone in on kind of creating a very holistic experience where, you know, we make do all of the resources of the firm. I always tell our clients, you have a very good opportunity in partnership with me to hire the firm. So if you're trying to build a philanthropic angle to your long-term strategy, we provide those resources. Right.

24:27 - 24:57

If you are looking to create, you know, trusts or specific plans for your generations to follow, you know, we provide those resources. Simply education. You know, I think as basic as these three words are, they so powerful. That's education, experience, and exposure. You know, it starts with the education piece. Again, for me, I saw more check cashing places than banks when I grew up. Right.

24:58 - 25:06

And I love my parents to death, but we didn't talk wealth. As an intern in the industry, I made more money than my mom at 16, you know.

25:06 - 25:36

So, you know, there is automatically lack of access to some of those E's, education, experience, and exposure, that opens the door to opportunities to have conversations that are pertinent to you and your legacy, but certainly to get exposed to the things that you never learned about. And the exposure and experience piece, you know, is very important, because it's the experience that gives you the confidence to jump in the markets.

25:36 - 26:10

And then while you're in the market, to stay the course. You know, so you really need to partner with people and organizations and teams who allow you to experience that, but specifically for you. The conversation I have with a Malik is going to be certainly different than a conversation I have with Jimmy. You know, I work under the guise that we meet everybody where they are. You know, I need to make sure that your experience is unique to you and your outcome is specific to the expectations you have as an investor.

26:10 - 26:27

That's also the thing, is getting the education before. That's it, that's the thing that is not really out there too much. Y ou know what I'm saying, like, filmmakers are working their tails off to get a career started. Right.

26:27 - 26:44

And then there's going to be a moment when someone is like, here's a big check, or here's a, you know, a large fee for this or that. And then people are like, what do I do? I have a bunch of friends that, like you said, grew up with check cashing places around them.

26:44 - 27:04

And they're like, you know, what do I do with this? I'm like, I don't know. Yeah, you know what I mean? You know, I'm like, I'm trying to figure it out. So I'm calling them, yo, how did you do this? You know, I'm sure NBA players are, you know, they have to learn the same thing, where it's like, and it's not like we're doing as well as them.

27:04 - 27:37

But, you know, it's a whole another education that comes along with the career. But I think it should be built into the career. You know, as now it's kind of like a side piece, which it shouldn't be. It should be built into those labs as well, you know. So as far as the film festivals and the labs are engaging these 18 to 24 year olds, you know, and look, they may not be where they expect to be ten years from now, but it's never too early to start. You know, you mentioned earlier, right.

27:37 - 27:40

The most important things are good food, good jobs, and good education.

27:41 - 27:44

I never thought the exposure and experience part before the education.

27:44 - 28:17

The other is equity. And that's not equity in ownership. It's equity in recognizing that everyone has a different starting place, which is why you have to look at every situation differently. And if I look at a situation through an equitable lens, then I acknowledge and recognize and I'm best able to address the needs because I'm looking at that person's opportunity in that exact instance. Right.

28:18 - 28:22

I'm not comparing Malik to other directors. I'm focusing on Malik.

28:23 - 28:47

And that's part of the experience. But that also drives cultural affinity. Right. That allows us to recognize that, you know, the group I lead and run, we focus on helping to create legacy for multicultural investors, and multicultural investors have different experiences than those of the mass market.

28:48 - 29:09

And the only way we can get to the point where we can be as helpful as possible is to have very equitable lens and a very equitable process. And if you can't experience that, I don't believe that you will enjoy the process and certainly see the outcomes that you expect.

29:09 - 29:35

But again, these conversations sometimes take a lot of time. You know, we spend as much time as necessary to make sure that the person on the other end of the table or the other end of the video camera really understands and recognizes what that legacy plan can be from a planning process. And then we hold hands and walk through the experience of starting to build that strategy for the future.

29:36 - 29:46

So that's how it works. Brilliant, brilliant. Awesome. Well, thanks for asking that question on my show. No one's ever asked me that question before. It's my show.

29:48 - 30:21

But look, everyone's road map is aligned with goals and every goal requires its own plan, you know, so it's not a set-it-and-forget-it conversation. It's not that I have this conversation, as you evolve, as you become more successful, as life happens in general, life is going to either create challenges or opportunities and whether it's challenges or opportunities, at the end of the day, you're going to have to plan for those. You can do the best you can to have contingencies in place.

30:22 - 30:41

But contingencies don't know the future either. So that's why it's very important to have a really good relationship with someone who's really good at giving advice. Thank you. Thanks. This has been awesome. Have a good one. Thank you so much for having me on and I really appreciate it. And that's a wrap on my conversation with Malik Fatthal. Thank you for tuning in.

30:41 - 31:13

And don't forget to check out his excellent new feature film, Bodycam. I hope you enjoyed today's episode. We love to hear from you. So please e-mail your thoughts, questions- and any feedback to diversemarkets@Bernstein.com. Be sure to share, subscribe, and rate us on Apple podcast or anywhere you listen to podcasts, and check us out on Twitter @BernsteinPWM. Bernstein: Making money meaningful for individuals, families, and foundations for over 50 years. Visit us at Bernstein.com.

Hosts
James Thompson
SVP—Head of Diverse Markets Strategy

The information presented and opinions expressed are solely the views of the podcast host commentator and their guest speaker(s). AllianceBernstein L.P. or its affiliates makes no representations or warranties concerning the accuracy of any data. There is no guarantee that any projection, forecast or opinion in this material will be realized. Past performance does not guarantee future results. The views expressed here may change at any time after the date of this podcast. This podcast is for informational purposes only and does not constitute investment advice. AllianceBernstein L.P. does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice. It does not take an investor’s personal investment objectives or financial situation into account; investors should discuss their individual circumstances with appropriate professionals before making any decisions. This information should not be construed as sales or marketing material or an offer or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any financial instrument, product or service sponsored by AllianceBernstein or its affiliates.

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