“It was a gift,” affirmed Malik Vitthal. “Back when I was a P.A., BBDO was the dream company I wanted to work for. And Procter & Gamble was a dream client with work like the ‘Thank You, Mom’ campaign, sharing these different mothers’ stories. It was the kind of work I aspired to as a director.”
The “gift” that ultimately brought director Vitthal, who’s with production house The Corner Shop, together with P&G and BBDO New York last year was “The Talk.” And this past awards season it earned assorted accolades, including a Cannes Lions Film Grand Prix, an AICP Show honor for direction, and last month the coveted primetime commercial Emmy.
Part of P&G’s ongoing My Black is Beautiful initiative, the piece features different African-American parents having “The Talk” with their kids about racial bias and how it can make life more difficult—and at times dangerous. In one of this piece’s most poignant moments, a girl behind the wheel of a car insists she’s a good driver and her mom doesn’t need to tell her what to do if she gets pulled over. The girl has no intention of getting pulled over because she obeys the speed limit and the rules of the road. Mom doesn’t doubt that but she has to explain to her daughter, “This is not about you getting a ticket. This is about you not coming home.”
Seeking out the right director for the job, BBDO wound up gravitating to Vitthal based largely on the strength of his first dramatic feature, Imperial Dreams, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014 and added to its following last year when it bowed on Netflix. The movie centers on a 21-year-old reformed gangster (portrayed by John Boyega) who’s devoted to his family. His future is put to the test when he is released from prison and returns to his old stomping grounds in the L.A. neighborhood of Watts.
Vitthal, who graduated from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, co-wrote (with Ismet Prcic) Imperial Dreams, which was developed at the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab and the Jerusalem International Film Lab. The movie went on to win such honors as the Audience Award: Best of NEXT at Sundance.
Bryan Barnes, BBDO NY associate creative director/art director on “The Talk,” recalled that he and his copywriter colleague, Nedal Ahmed (who’s since moved over to Droga5), reached out to Vitthal after Imperial Dreams launched on Netflix. “We watched it. It was very well done. The casting and acting felt so real as he told this beautiful story,” related Barnes. “One of the biggest concerns we had (for “The Talk”) was we didn’t want it to feel like a gimmick, an ad. We wanted it to feel like a beautiful story. Malik is good at pulling performances out of talent. He helped attain that realism we needed.”
An ensemble from BBDO—including New York CCO Greg Hahn—accepted the Emmy during the Creative Arts Awards ceremony in L.A., along with Vitthal’s mother. She was there in her son’s stead as he was in New Orleans working on a movie. “To have my mom there to accept on my behalf was priceless to me,” said the director. “My mom changed her life to raise me on her own. She’s why I’m who I am—which is positive and passionate about what I do, looking to connect with audiences through human stories.”
The alluded to film lensing in the Big Easy—Vitthal’s second feature, a Paramount release—is a horror thriller starring Mary J. Blige (a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for Mudbound), Nat Wolff and Theo Rossi. Blige plays a police officer chasing a cop killer—a pursuit being tracked by a supernatural entity, making for a movie that’s scary, yet poetic and loving. “The challenge is to emotionally touch viewers, to engage them—all in the context of a horror film,” related Vitthal.
The filmmaker is adept at such engagement through empathy-evoking people stories—in both his short and long-form fare. That’s evident not only in “The Talk” but also such ad exploits as “Us,” an anthem TV spot in the YMCA of the USA’s “For a better us” campaign from Droga5 NY that focuses on nationwide unity and strengthening community bonds through programs and resources available at 2,700 Ys across the country. Vitthal’s “Us” takes viewers on a journey that explores what the idea of “us” means in our country, the ways in which our bonds are fraying and how the Y helps make them whole again through safe spaces, community outreach, mentorship, volunteerism and more.
Vitthal too has benefited from nurturing and mentorship, citing Anna Hashmi, EP and co-founder of The Corner Shop, as an example. “She saw my work, believed in me and gave me opportunities, one commercial at a time.” Vitthal described Hashmi as “my other godmother.”
Vitthal sees “The Talk” and “Us” as a chance for viewers “to look at their own perception of what reality is by introducing them to different cultures—to help understand how a person grows up in a culture we don’t know, a different way of living, how they live in that world, what they have to deal with in those worlds. I try to dig deep into the nuances of what they’re coping with and hopefully that helps us understand each other a little bit more. Sometimes it feels like we’re in crisis. In the midst of such chaos, it’s good to realize and remember that we all have a shared humanity.”