Candyman. 2021. Directed by Nia DaCosta. Screenplay by DaCosta, Jordan Peele, & Win Rosenfeld.
Starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Colman Domingo, Kyle Kaminsky, Vanessa Williams, Brian King, Miriam Moss, Rebecca Spence, Carl Clemons-Hopkins, Christian Clark, Michael Hargrove, Rodney L. Jones III, Heidi Grace Engerman, & Breanna Lind.
Universal Pictures / MGM / BRON Studios
Rated R / 91 minutes
Horror / Thriller
Even if the original Candyman was a fantastic Urban Gothic horror that will forever be etched in our collective cinematic consciousness—Tony Todd in particular cemented his legacy forever as the eponymous villain—it felt right to have a Black director, as well as Black writers, elaborate on the existing mythology to create another Candyman. Similarly, there are plenty of great Black film critics who’ve already looked at 2021’s Candyman, so you should seek them out to read their compelling takes that are no doubt much more racially informed than my own lived experience.
Nia DaCosta’s Candyman goes deeper into the gentrification and racism at the heart of the story, avoiding the somewhat white saviour-ness of the first. Her film draws from Chicago’s history, specifically the real life Cabrini-Green housing project, to explore the terrors of the Urban Gothic through a Black perspective.
Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is a visual artist living in Chicago with his girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), an art gallery director. He’s struggling to find his next piece of work, as he blends his artistic talent with a passion for social issues. He meets Billy Burke (Colman Domingo), a laundromat owner from Cabrini-Green. Billy tells Anthony the story of the Candyman, Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove)—a hook-handed man the police beat to death because they wrongly believed he put a razor blade in candy that wound up in a white girl’s Halloween bag.
Sherman was later exonerated. An urban legend of the Candyman grew, suggesting that if you say Candyman’s name five times in a mirror then Sherman’s spirit appears to kill you. This gives Anthony inspiration for a new art exhibit, using mirrors and the Candyman story. Except nobody’s overly impressed with it, then people start to die. What Anthony begins to learn is that Candyman is much older than the tale of Sherman Fields.
And the Candyman’s eternal.
When Anthony meets Billy at Cabrini-Green the latter makes several references to actual tragic Black histories in Chicago. Billy mentions two important names: Dantrell Davis and Girl X. Dantrell Davis was a seven-year-old Black boy in Chicago who lived at the Cabrini-Green housing project and he was accidentally shot by a gang member. Although the killer was indicted on first-degree murder charges and Dantrell’s murder shed light on the rough living conditions of Cabrini-Green, ultimately the housing project was gentrified as a result of the supposed efforts to ‘clean the place up’ in the aftermath, forcing lots of Black people and families to relocate, if they had the money.
Then there’s the horrific story of Girl X, real name Toya Currie, a nine-year-old Black girl who lived in Cabrini-Green. In 1997, Toya was abducted before being raped and having roach repellant sprayed in her mouth, choked, then left to die; she didn’t die, remaining in a coma in the hospital for a while after the attack. Toya was named Girl X in the media because the idea was to transcend race, class (etc) so that people in Chicago would see this could have been anyone. Yet that was an erasure of Girl X’s identity, quite literally, ignoring the fact she was Black, that she lived in a low-income housing project, and any other potential intersectional factors that could’ve played into her vicious attack.
Billy brings up these real life stories of crimes against Black children in contrast with the fictional story of Helen from the original Candyman: “One white woman dies in the hood and the story lives on forever.” Of course within the world of the film they’re all ‘real’ references, but the screenplay juxtaposes real life with fiction in a way that speaks further to the film’s themes regarding racism and the idea that Black stories are ignored in favourited of white ones, in reality and in the arts.
Something else Billy talks about that’s central to Candyman—from Barker’s original story to the first film and this one, too—is the gentrification of Cabrini-Green by the social and political forces of whiteness. The Urban Gothic as a whole is about “spaces of rampant neglect,” though Candyman is specifically about how Black spaces fall into decay through that neglect due to the myriad socioeconomic effects of white supremacist ideology.
The graffiti is such a significant symbol, in all of Candyman‘s iterations, because it’s similar to the way Martin Luther King described riots as the “language of the unheard” in that graffiti is, in many marginalised neighbourhoods, a form of protest, or, more simply, a form of art to give someone a voice when they are socially/politically voiceless. That ties back into the Candyman legend in the 2021 film and how the urban legend took the place of actual stories and lived experience, the real racist history buried, to the point that Candyman—to white folks, anyway—is nothing more than a spray-painted monster on a wall.
“They love what we make,
Though the first Candyman film doesn’t skimp on the racist storyline, originating in Daniel Robitaille’s backstory, its focus on Virginia Madsen’s Helen makes the story more about her, regardless of how you read it. This new Candyman makes its villain prominent, focusing on how his figure is a racial haunting, a ghost borne of America’s foundational racism and its never ending reinforcement by individuals and institutions alike. The cyclical nature of American racism is symbolised in the way Candyman is not just Robitaille, nor is he Sherman Fields, nor Anthony McCoy, but all the Black men “swarmed” by the angry hive of racism and the abusive social powers of whiteness.
A great line comes from Anthony in one scene, when he’s talking about his art, reflecting a much grander idea about the Black experience in America: “At some point you have to move on.” This line is the way too many white people see Black history in America, believing something from centuries ago shouldn’t have an affect on contemporary life. The line is rebutted later when Billy remarks “a pain like that lasts forever,” speaking directly to the historical Black trauma that passes on from one generation to the next due to the continuing cyclical, systematic nature of racism in America.
While Black people in the film grapple with the Gothic histories of racism embedded in the City of Chicago, Black women are the ones left to bear the heaviest load of all. Brianna continually has her voice and opinion disregarded. In one scene where Anthony’s trying to make a decision, Brianna makes clear “I voted no” while he doesn’t bother listening to her opinion. The most blatant moment is when Anthony completely disregards Brianna’s consent as he starts to say Candyman’s name in the mirror and she, again, deliberately says the word “no.” Though it’s just as troubling when Anthony gets a sick pleasure out of his macabre mention on the news in spite of Brianna being traumatised by finding bodies at her gallery.
Although in the end Candyman saves Brianna, he only does it so she can tell his story, which he says so himself. How can Candyman assure that Brianna will be able to tell anyone? What if more cops come and find her there? Would she make it out of that alive? She’d probably be arrested, either way, at least for a time. The point is, Brianna, a Black woman, is left to bear the brunt of a Black’s man decisions, forced into a position in which she’ll either face the physical or figurative force of the state because of his actions. It’s exactly how Brianna’s father treated her, by knowingly traumatising his young daughter by forcing her to bear witness to his suicide. This aspect of Candyman renders the folk hero-like villain a much less than (anti)heroic figure, illustrating misogynoir in Brianna’s plot.
There are plenty of conservative morons who’ve been whining since Nia DaCosta’s Candyman was released, believing the ‘woke’ mob have yet again turned a classic bit of horror into a social justice spectacle, somehow ignoring Clive Barker’s original short story and the first film, both of which do contain obvious social issues at the forefront. These (white) fools are only mad because DaCosta, along with the co-writing of Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld, has brought all the racial—and intersectional—issues into focus much clearer than ever before. For many of us—white, Black or otherwise—this attention to racism is what Candyman is all about, and always has been, which is why DaCosta’s film is even better than the already enjoyable, iconic original.
2021’s Candyman comes along at the right time, since America’s deep, existing racial divisions have only gotten worse after the rise of Donald Trump and his election to POTUS. We’re living in a time when racism should be dying off, but that’s simply not reality. Individuals perpetuate racist attitudes and behaviours. However, societal institutions create foundations in our society in which racism take root, spreading racist ideology into every corner of life. It’s easier to change individual racists’ minds than it is to destroy and reconfigure our society’s institutions.
The Candyman in DaCosta’s film is a haunting Gothic figure like a twist off Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. He symbolises the ghost of America’s past and the ghost of America’s present. Worse, he likewise symbolises the ghost of America’s future should American citizens continue to expect societal institutions strangled by whiteness to create genuine change instead of doing what they do best, perpetually creating more Candymans, year after year.