“I’m having a ball,” Yahya Abdul-Mateen II says, not for the first time today. It’s early March, the handshake is still a standard greeting instead of a bygone custom, and the two of us are sitting in a classroom at the New York Academy of Art, studying a Still Life 101 setup: a pitcher, an apple, a few clementines here and there. I am dutifully following our teacher’s instructions with the skill level of a neurotic third grader. Abdul-Mateen, 33, is blithely slathering burnt umber oil paint onto his canvas, full speed ahead. He might as well be wearing a beret.
Abdul-Mateen is not technically a painter, but he will be playing one in the upcoming Candyman, a sequel to the iconic Black horror movie about the hook-handed ghost of a lynched man who is summoned when you say his name five times in front of a mirror. He is rumored to also be starring as Candyman himself, which has inspired Twitter memes about deliberately calling forth the vengeful spirit if he looks like Abdul-Mateen—that is to say, a solid six feet three and incredibly handsome. It’s his biggest role yet, one that cements him in a covetable and comfortable place: leading-man territory. This fall he’ll also be portraying Black Panther Party cofounder Bobby Seale in the Aaron Sorkin courtroom drama The Trial of the Chicago 7, and after that he’ll have a role in The Matrix 4 opposite Keanu Reeves. “I have these moments where my sense of reality slows down and I pull back and I can see the bigger picture,” he tells me. “I say, Wow, I’m really doing this thing.”
For Abdul-Mateen, his childhood relationship to the original 1992 Candyman was less about the movie itself and more about feeling an ambient terror of its titular bogeyman. “In my imagination, Candyman lived where I live,” he recalls. “Candyman came to the projects, so that made him real.” Abdul-Mateen, the youngest of six children, grew up between New Orleans and Oakland. “My family was my tribe,” he says. “My best friends.” His father practiced Islam, and his mother is Christian, but he eventually drifted toward the latter’s faith, mostly because the church had teen nights where he could go hang out with girls. These days he doesn’t strictly adhere to either religion, choosing instead to borrow from both. “Somebody has to go to hell,” he says, remarking on what would happen to each of his parents according to the other’s religion. “And I just don’t think that God is that petty.” When he pushes up the sleeves of his black sweatshirt to grab another paintbrush, I catch a glimpse of a small tattoo on each wrist: on the right, two stick figures holding hands to symbolize him and his dad, who died of cancer when Abdul-Mateen was 21. On the left, a ladybug, because his mom calls him “bug.”
Abdul-Mateen is deeply earnest. When asked about casting him to play the lead in Candyman, director Nia DaCosta told me in an email that it was a “no-brainer” and that she was “struck by his honesty, clarity, and openness.” These qualities are apparent whether he’s talking about his childhood love of Dick Van Dyke in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the active group chat he has with his fraternity brothers, or the elegance of the Guggenheim building. And he’s pretty sensitive, he’ll admit, even if it’s an aspect of his personality that he’s only recently started to come to terms with because of “a girl.” (When asked to clarify, he grins and politely leaves it at “a girl.”) But he’s not without confidence. I ask him to hit me with his worst audition story, a question that tends to reliably lead to a funny anecdote, and he rests his hand on his chin to reflect on this for a second before cracking a furtive smile to himself. So…?
In planning the NBA’s effort to restart at the end of July, league officials have reconsidered just about everything. In a 113-page handbook outlining health and safety protocols obtained by the New York Times, the NBA laid out rules for playing poker (masks on, throw the pack straight into the garbage once finished), ping-pong (absolutely no doubles), and snorkeling (BYOSnorkel). The league is also rethinking what players wear in The Bubble: They will be able to change the name on the back of their jerseys to ones related to “social justice issues,” and, strikingly, the league’s infamous dress code is loosening up, according to Athletic reporter Shams Charania.
The new dress code allows for players to go without a sports coat on the bench, and for them to wear short- or long-sleeve polos for “team/league business.” These might sound like small changes, but in a league whose influence on menswear has been enormous, even small changes can feel massive.
Former NBA commissioner David Stern installed the dress code in 2005, in an effort to tamp down on the baggy clothing then popular among the league’s players. Many rightfully called the dress code out as racist: “They want to sway away from the hip-hop generation,” former player Jason Richardson said at the time. “One thing to me that was kind of racist was you can’t wear chains outside your clothing… You wear a suit, you still could be a crook.”
In unraveling portions of the dress code, the NBA is waving a sort of white flag. In 2005, the league was unwilling to let players dress the way they wanted to. In 2020, the league is following the way fashion has changed over the past 15 years: Business-casual dress codes are now the norm at most offices around the U.S. (different surveys will tell you that’s true for anywhere from 50% to 79% of workplaces), and even the famously suited-up Goldman Sachs let its bankers ditch the suit in 2019. Stringent dress codes are even less important in the Orlando bubble, which is already asking a lot from NBA players who are forced to be isolated for months potentially. “This is the asterisk part of the season, and there shouldn’t be any rules,” says Kesha McLeod, an NBA stylist who works with players like James Harden and P. J. Tucker. “You have [players] here during a pandemic and they’re playing—that should be enough. You can’t now tell them they also have to wear a sport coat.”
With the release of Rough and Rowdy Ways last week, Dylan’s first album of original songs in eight years, I found myself wanting to track down and talk to the person who had both written the greatest Dylan parody song of all time and inadvertently changed my relationship with his entire catalogue. That would be musician Dan Bern, whose original songs have also been inspired by and compared to the man himself.
“We were trying to write really good songs that were also funny in the context,” Bern told me about the team of songwriters who were hired for Walk Hard. “It felt like the Manhattan Project, where scientists dropped their work to go work on the A-bomb together.”
For Dewey’s Dylan phase, Bern personally wrote four songs over the course of three days, trying to channel the Blonde on Blonde era. Two ended up in the film: “Royal Jelly” and “Farmer Glickstein” in the closing credits. (“Red clouds on the road required / Three new garbage men just hired.”) If the writing was efficient, the process of how he actually did it was more amorphous. “It was just allowing yourself to go wild with images and metaphor and not have to worry about, how is this making sense in some linear way?” Bern said. “I like to think I sort of got into the headspace that Dylan was in when he was writing, or at least a glimpse of it. It was a really freeing thing to do.”
“I think it starts with just one line. I mean, as soon as you get ‘mailboxes drip like lampposts in the twisted birth canal of the Coliseum,’ it’s like, write the next one!” he added. “I mean, it can be anything.”
Some of the final recording involved John C. Reilly riffing as well. Bern said Reilly spontaneously shouted “You’re a liar” at the end of the song as a nod to the infamous 1966 Dylan show when he responded as such to a heckler who called him “Judas.” “John had enough of a sense of all that history,” Bern told me. “He was fun and funny, and he approached everything with such a seriousness, too.”
Reilly, for his part, told The Ringer in a 2019, “I found myself getting really emotional when I was singing it. It was a real testament to the fact that it doesn’t matter what the words of a song are. If you put your spirit into it and you really mean it, you really can try to connect with an audience.”
And how does Bern feel about “Royal Jelly” now? “I’m proud that I had a hand in it,” he said. “I’m proud that Dewey Cox wrote it or sang it. I’m really grateful that I got to do that, mostly.” (Bern’s personal favorite tune from the film is “Beautiful Ride,” the ballad that Dewey sings on stage at a lifetime achievement award ceremony, before dying exactly three minutes later.)
Years after Walk Hard came out, Bern learned that Dylan had some choice words for him—not about “Royal Jelly” but another Dylan-related parody of his. Back in 1991, Bern had written a spoof “interview” with Dylan’s mother, for a small magazine called Song Talk, in which “she” revealed that she had actually written all of her son’s songs. In 2015, Bern was informed that Dylan had supposedly seen the piece in 1994 and wrote a letter to the magazine calling him a “scurrilous little wretch with a hard-on for comedy.”
“I had to work through it a little bit,” Bern said. “But hey, not everybody has a blurb from that guy.”
Bern has, of course, listened to Rough and Rowdy Ways, saying, “I look forward to continuing to absorb it, but I think it’s great. I love the sound, it’s swampy, it’s real bluesy. The songs are deep. They’re all about death and religion and the sacred and the profane all mixed together.”
Before I hung up, I asked Bern my most pressing question: did he remember where the name “Royal Jelly,” technically a honey bee secretion, came from? “No,” Bern replied quickly, before venturing, “I eat royal jelly, so maybe I had some royal jelly on the counter?” Fair enough. As a wise man once said: “inside the three-eyed monkey within inches of his toaster oven life.”
As you’ve gotten older, has Judaism remained an important part of your lives, as it seems like your experience was largely cultural?
Alana: When it comes to Judaism, the thing that really kept us together was the family aspect. It was the High Holidays, coming together as a family for an event. A meal.
Este We did Shabbat, but that was more about just coming together as a family.
Alana: I also think my parents knew that Friday was when kids got into trouble. That was my parents’ evil play. Every Friday, all the cool kids would go to the Galleria and every Friday night, I remember being like, Mom, can you please drive me to the Galleria? And she’d be like, let’s see how we feel after Shabbat. My parents would drag Shabbat out for as long as they could and then be like, “What, are you going to go for a half an hour and then I have to pick you up? This isn’t happening.”
Have you played any bar or bat mitzvahs?
Alana: No, and I’m down! My dream when it was bat mitzvah season was to be a bat mitzvah dancer. What a fun fucking job! You get to go to bat mitzvahs all the time and just get the party started. That still might be my dream. I’ve never experienced more parties in my life. I’m fucking 28 years old and I may be going to a party once a year. That was every weekend for a year. I was the belle of the ball. It was really a roaring bat mitzvah season, and I do miss it. We were, like, freak dancing in front of grandparents. We were grinding, and I would literally would see someone’s poor grandma who they rolled out…
Este: …who’d survived the Holocaust
Alana: And I’m literally getting down to Ciara. What was I thinking? I guess hormones are just like, We don’t care! Let’s go! If I went to a bat mitzvah now and I saw like, like, 12 and 13 year olds dancing how I was dancing, I would run away and cry.
Danielle, have you thought about having a bat mitzvah now?
Danielle: I should!
Este: A not mitzvah.
Este: Your 26th birthday is your not mitzvah, and then 39 is your hot mitzvah. Hopefully 13 years after that, hopefully you celebrate your kid’s bar or bat mitzvah.
What advice would you give your 13 year old selves?
Alana: I would tell myself: Keep going. All these dudes that are rejecting you are going to come back around one day. So fuck them! Harell Dahari, you could have had this! If I could go back if I could, like see myself as a 13 year old, I really wouldn’t be like, just wait until those braces are off. Your life is gonna change when those braces are gonna come off. I know you cry every night. Wait till those braces come off. You’re gonna be great.
Este: I would probably tell my 13 year old self to start therapy now. I think the worst time of anyone’s life is middle school. That’s when you need therapy the most—to have an hour to just talk about how you’re feeling and your problems. I read back on my diaries—I had super terrible emo poetry. Obviously looking back I’m like, Bitch, shut up. However! However, when you’re going through it, and you’re feeling all the things, it would probably have been helpful for me to be able to talk to someone. I talked to my parents as much as I probably could, but when you’re 13 you don’t think your parents understand you
Alana: I’m not gonna go to my mom be like, “Mom, Harell Dahari just won’t make out with me. How can I seduce Harell Dahari? Can you give me a play by play?”
Este: Mom’s advice was always, like, “Keep a little mystery.” I have no idea what that means. Also, my mom didn’t let us shave our armpits or our legs.
Danielle: That would be my advice: just do it. Once it’s gone, your parents can’t fucking do anything about it.
Alana: Save your fucking life and don’t be the hairy girl.
Since police officers murdered Eric Garner in New York in 2014, his last words, “I can’t breathe,” have become a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. High-profile figures like LeBron James have worn the words on T-shirts, and protesters have chanted them at anti-police-brutality demonstrations.
“I can’t breathe” aren’t just Eric Garner’s last words. In multiple fatal encounters with police, both white and Black people have said the same phrase while begging officers not to kill them. The most recent incidents include George Floyd, whose murder in Minnesota set off the latest wave of protests nationwide, and Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man in Colorado.
New York Police Department officers have also mocked Garner’s last words, wearing shirts that said “I Can Breathe” in 2014 to antagonize people protesting Garner’s murder.
On Wednesday conservatives in Scottsdale, Arizona, held a rally against face masks, protesting public health measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. At one point, in a now widely circulated video, Scottsdale city council member Guy Phillips took the microphone while wearing a mask. He yelled, “I can’t breathe” twice, before dramatically removing his mask to cheers from the crowd.
Denunciations came quickly. Scottsdale mayor Jim Lane called Phillips’s comments “callous and insensitive.” In the Arizona Republic, columnist E. J. Montini wrote that Phillips made it clear he believes it’s “acceptable to exploit the death of a man” and turn it “into a punchline.” CNN contributor Keith Boykin tweeted, “It was no joke when Eric Garner, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Manuel Ellis, Javier Ambler and Derrick Elliot Scott said ‘I can’t breathe.'”
Face masks have become a focal point among conservatives who don’t believe that the ongoing pandemic is either real or serious. In the weeks before police brutality protests swept the country, mostly white protesters staged their own protests demanding that states end measures intended to slow the spread of the virus, including requiring face masks in public. Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have refused to wear masks on many occasions. In addition to his opposition to wearing face masks, which public health officials almost unanimously agree is one of the most effective ways to fight the pandemic, the Scottsdale official, Phillips, previously shared a Facebook message, in earnest, claiming that “COVID literally stands for ‘Chinese Originated Viral Infectious Disease’ and the number 19 is due to this being the 19th virus to come out of China.” He was forced to apologize for that bit of racist misinformation.
The New York Times is reporting that Arizona is currently “overwhelmed” with demand for coronavirus tests, and it’s one of seven states currently seeing their biggest spikes in cases since the outbreak began. As of Thursday morning, more than 122,000 Americans have died as a result of the disease, representing over a quarter of the global death toll.