“One of the first things that I did when I went to Chicago was to go to Cabrini-Green and put on that community planner hat,” he said. “And for a place that has a history of being as Black as that neighborhood was, that was not what I found. One has to wonder what happened to all of those families, all of those spirits? For every household, there’s a story, but when there’s no one there anymore to tell those stories, then that’s a tragedy.”
With the clout he’s beginning to accrue, Abdul-Mateen wants to make sure those stories are told right. He also knows that if he can bring even more of himself to bear on these movies, he can start steering the wave instead of surfing it.
Maybe it will help, too, once he feels he has a world to return to. Abdul-Mateen has spent the last few hectic years without a home of his own; even when he secured the keys to a New York apartment in January, he left the next day to film a new movie in Los Angeles. “This has been a very isolating experience,” he said. “I don’t want to do that anymore. I don’t have to do that anymore.”
In the future, he plans to take more cues from his “Aquaman” co-star Jason Momoa, who keeps his family and close friends around him on set: “It helps him to stay true to who he is, because he’s not always the one having to speak up and support his own values all the time.” Abdul-Mateen hopes that will help the movies he makes feel more like himself, more like the homes he grew up in, more like the community that raised him in New Orleans.
In the meantime, he’ll bring that feeling with him. When I asked Abdul-Mateen if he could name the most New Orleans thing about him, he grinned and spread his legs wide.
“The way I take up space,” he said. “Somebody from New Orleans, they sit with their legs from east to west, they’re going to gesture big.” He waved his hands, then looked into the camera and fixed me with those high beams. “I don’t necessarily do that in my everyday life. But when I decide to take up space, nobody can take it from me.”