'It can get exhausting': Yahya Abdul-Mateen II on Black trauma porn and importance of Black joy
"Candyman," "Aquaman," "Watchmen": It's safe to say Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is that man in Hollywood.
Abdul-Mateen broke onto the acting scene in 2016 starring in Baz Luhrmann's short-lived Netflix series "The Get Down," and the 35-year-old artist has kept the block hot (or rather "ice cold" as Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity would say) for five years straight, taking on roles in Jordan Peele's thriller "Us"; the Academy Award-nominated film "The Trial of the Chicago 7"; and in the coming "Matrix 4." Not to mention the Emmy and ensemble Screen Actors Guild Award trophies he's taken home in the past two years.
Ahead of "Candyman" (now in theaters), the New Orleans native and Yale School of Drama grad told USA TODAY that despite the horror film being a reimagined version of an almost 30-year-old movie, the themes of racial violence are as apt as ever.
It starts with how the film's legendary ghost appears only when people say his name five times while looking in a mirror.
"I don't think you can talk about 'Candyman' today without talking about last year and the Black Lives Matter movement, George Floyd or the ways that we invoke saying their names as a way to keep them alive. We do the same thing in 'Candyman,' " Abdul-Mateen says.
Currently filming alongside Jason Momoa for "Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom," Abdul-Mateen talks to us about how "Candyman" fits into modern history, the projects he wants to see come to fruition and where he gets his Black boy joy from.
Question: The Black Lives Matter movement happened shortly after you all finished production on "Candyman." What effect did that have on you?
Abdul-Mateen: You can look back at any point in history and find a reference point to drop "Candyman" and it will be relevant, whether it was 1992 when the (original) film came out, I believe that was around the time of the turmoil from the Los Angeles riots … to present day. We knew that the film would have its relevance because there's so much work yet still to be done, and so it did carry a certain weight, because we knew that the film would be important when it came out, as important as it was when we were making the film.
Q: You've worked on projects like "Watchmen," "Trial of the Chicago 7," "Us" and now "Candyman," all of which deal with Black trauma. Does that get exhausting?
Abdul-Mateen: It can get exhausting. I try to make sure that if I align myself with projects that do display Black trauma that it's not in the form of trauma porn. That it's not just trauma for trauma's sake, but that the trauma is a jumping off point… There's so much more to us, the Black American experience, than simply trauma, and we have to deal with it, right?
But now as we get the tools to deal with that trauma and to move forward, I believe that it's important to tell the stories about what happens next and how we become bigger than the things that happen to us.
More:Yahya Abdul-Mateen II opens up about that shocking 'Trial of the Chicago 7' courtroom scene
Q: What kind of stories do you want to tell?
Abdul-Mateen: I want to tell stories about heroes, about imagination. I want to tell love stories. I want to tell stories that make people reminisce and think about possibility and think about what they can do in the world as opposed to what they cannot do… But I want to also do it from a place that integrates soulfulness and artfulness, and put out work that makes people from the places where I come from, New Orleans and West Oakland and similar places, relate to the images I put on screen.
Q: Your social media presence is definitely giving Black boy joy vibes, is that intentional?
Abdul-Mateen: That's just who I am; I try not to curate too much. I'm the youngest of six, I'm from New Orleans, grew up in West Oakland, and we smile, we live large and loud. I was raised to be that way. It's cool to smile and have a good time, you can't be hard all the time life is hard enough, you know what I mean? So if me being free and smiling, listening to my music and being silly and things like that inspire someone else to do it, then I'm all for it. Everything bad that's going to happen is already on it's way and I'm not in a rush to get to it. So I'm just going to enjoy life along the way and share that path with other people as well.