It’s 1977, and a young boy goes off to take care of his laundry. As the camera pans over the area, we get a sense of where he lives. We’re in Chicago’s Cabrini Green, the housing projects gracelessly plopped in Chicago’s otherwise well-to-do north side. There are police officers present and, although they say they are looking for a murderer. None of the mostly Black residents seem keen to assist them. Maybe that’s because the officers didn’t seem to care about finding him until his actions harmed a white girl. And so begins Candyman (2021)
This dynamic of white presence and white violence in Black neighbourhoods and against Black bodies is the focus of Candyman (2021). This makes sense if you are at all familiar with the original film of the same name. Candyman (2021) serves as a direct sequel to Candyman (1992). Both films are based on “The Forbidden,” a short story written by Clive Barker. It tells the story of a young woman named Helen, who chooses to base her thesis work on graffiti and unwittingly stumbles into the (honestly very vague) lore of Candyman.
The 1992 film develops this premise even more. Daniel Robitaille becomes the focus of the story. An artist, he serves as a painter for wealthy white people in the 1800s. He is murdered after he falls in love with and impregnates a white woman. His right arm is cut off. The hand replaced with a hook. Slathered in honey and stung by angry bees until his eventual death. Before he passes, he sees himself in a mirror and murmurs to himself one word: Candyman. His anger at his murder is what allows his spirit to return and stalk the neighbourhood of Cabrini Green. Although Daniel is a fictional character, his story invokes horror because it’s not an impossible one.
It’s into this history that Helen Lyle stumbles into. She’s an interloper. She doesn’t belong in the neighbourhood she wandered into. None of the residents trust her, and they shouldn’t. When strange things begin to happen, she’s the prime suspect. In the end, Helen sacrifices herself to save a baby kidnapped by Candyman. Her death is almost seen as fated, as she appears to be the resurrected lover of Candyman. Maybe they were always meant to end this way.
Candyman (1992) is arguably a horror masterpiece. It is one of my favourite films. I don’t know any Black people who are willing to look into the mirror and utter Candyman 5 times. Despite this, there was always one piece of the film that bugged me. Candyman is a Black man killed by white people. So, why would he take vengeance on poor Black people? This is the question that it seems Candyman (2021) seeks to answer. Unfortunately, I’m not sure it succeeds.
Set 20 years after the original film, Candyman tells the story of struggling artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen). Originally from the South Side of Chicago, Anthony and his girlfriend. Art curator Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris) have both recently moved into a luxurious loft in Cabrini. Anyone who is a fan of the original work will remember that name. Unfortunately, the Cabrini Green Towers are now no more, allowing for the area’s gentrification. But you can’t gentrify the ghosts that come with the neighbourhood.
The 2021 film is supposedly a direct sequel to the 1992 version. Despite this, you almost certainly don’t need to watch the first film in the series. That’s because the story isn’t original. Instead, it is almost a mirror image (and yes, that pun was intentional) of its predecessor. Although Anthony is an artist, not a grad student, his story directly traces Helen’s footsteps. Anthony hears the story of Helen’s time at Cabrini Green from Brianna’s brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) during a couple’s night. Almost immediately, he develops a fixation.
He visits Cabrini Green, taking photos of the largely abandoned buildings and the graffiti within. Fixating so intently on what he sees that he’s too late to swat away the bee that stings him on his right hand. It’s here that he meets William Burke (Coleman Domingo). One of the last remaining residents of the housing projects who owns the laundromat. William takes the time to walk Anthony through the legend of Candyman. Providing more depth than Troy could give and inspires Anthony’s work.
His next art piece focuses on this legend. A medicine cabinet mirror that hides depictions of white violence against Black bodies. Unfortunately, a largely white audience doesn’t seem to appreciate the message that Anthony is attempting to convey with his piece. As a result, almost all of the victims of this film’s Candyman are white people who have perpetrated violence against Black people in some way. Oddly, for a horror film, almost all of those kills happen without the actual physical presence of Candyman.
One of the reasons Candyman (1992) was so successful was the smooth, alluring mystery of Tony Todd’s depiction of the title character. Todd’s deep, gravelly voice, almost cat-like grace and strangely fashionable attire all enhanced the character’s horror. Todd’s Candyman felt almost like a seduction. Falling into death was easy when you know that he’s the one greeting you. Given this, it makes sense to cast Yahya Abdul-Mateen as the main character. He has the same deep, intriguing voice. Well-carved features. He’s a man many people love to see on their screens. But, unfortunately, the material he has to work with fails to live up to the promise he represents.
In what I believe is an attempt to address the 1992 film’s biggest failure (that of making Candyman, a Black man killed by white people, a killer who terrorizes Black people), his victims are almost all white. I say almost for a reason I’ll discuss shortly. They are killed quickly, in what feels like a gratuitous need to show death because it is, after all, a horror film. But Candyman himself is seldom seen on screen in the film. Instead, we see him largely in shadow or in small glimpses of a mirrored world. When we finally get the opportunity to see the title character, we learn he is many men. All of whom have suffered from the force of white violence. It’s a good idea, but when compared with the smooth creepiness of Todd’s Candyman, it falls flat.
As the story continues, we consistently see the themes of cyclical trauma and how gentrification causes harm to Black people. Unfortunately, the gentrification theme in particular suffers. Chicago, a city with highly recognizable landmarks, vibrant street life and obvious culture, turns into what feels like a mini New York City. We hear about Gentrification but never see it. We even watch as a white art critic tells Anthony that “Artists are gentrifiers.”. Anthony and Brianna are home shamed for buying one of the new lofts built on the bones of the Cabrini Towers by her brother, and all of it is frustrating to watch.
Black people purchasing homes in gentrified areas do not destroy the cultures of the communities they move into in the same way that white people can and often do. This conflation becomes even more egregious when you realize that Anthony’s mother is Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Estelle Williams returns). The same woman whose baby is kidnapped in the original Candyman! Anthony can not be considered a gentrifier because he is quite literally a native son returning to his home.
At its core, Candyman (2021) attempts to explore how Black trauma is intergenerational. The atrocities inflicted on our ancestors years prior still affect our lives today. I’m always interested in exploring these concepts. In some ways, the film did do justice by it. The idea that Candyman is multiple different Black men, all harmed by white police violence, is intriguing. Watching both Yahya’s Anthony and Coleman’s William slowly be eaten alive (both physically and mentally) by the trauma of their past was a sight to behold. But, even in a film directed and written by a Black woman, the trauma of the Black female characters is glossed over.
This is perhaps particularly bothersome when one considers that a lot of the promotional material for a film that deals with police violence against Black bodies. Intentionally used verbiage similar to the rally cries of “Say Her Name”. A phrase specifically created to memorialize Sandra Bland and other Black female victims of state-sanctioned police violence.
Brianna’s childhood trauma is a significant part of her character arc. It even plays into her relationship with Anthony, and yet we are given mere glimpses of what makes her, well, her. Anne-Marie receives perhaps 3 minutes of the film’s runtime, and her trauma directly leads to the events of this film. Neither Brianna nor Anne-Marie will ever be the same again. Candyman victimizes them in a way that is perhaps worse than those that he kills. And the film glosses over it completely. In the film’s final moments, Black women are once again asked to both bear the trauma of the events of the film and become the torchbearers for the male victims of white supremacy. It is a load that is becoming impossible to bear.
There are so many questions that need answers. How did Anthony get there? What was that ending? Why was that ending? There are more, but I am trying to keep it very surface level so as not to give away too much. Perhaps another 30 minutes would have been sufficient to tell the story DaCosta envisioned.
Jordan Peele (and by association MonkeyPaw Productions) has gained a name for himself in crafting films thatr are more psychologically thrilling than scary horror. That can work well, especially in original pictures that don’t have existing lore attached to them. In this instance, given the rich history of Candyman and the existing fanbase, I think they veered too far left. Nevertheless, I anticipate most people who see the film will like it. At just an hour and a half, it’s a short summer film and features many beautiful, talented actors.
The movie is beautiful if you don’t care to dig too deeply into the overarching themes. The cinematography is nearly flawless, and there are several shots that snatch my breath. In addition, there are quite a few scenes that play well for humour. One scene in particular, in a high school bathroom, shocked a chuckle out of me. I wonder if you guys will catch it. It’s also not too scary, so those of you who like your horror lite won’t be afraid to look into your mirror tomorrow.
However, for those of us who look at the messages woven into films, it is a disappointment. A film that focuses on themes of white violence and those who benefit from it ultimately capitulates to the need to cater to white audiences. The dissections of gentrification and trauma tread too softly to make an impact, careful not to peel off more than the top layer. Moreover, Black people wrote the film. It is directed by a Black woman and about a character whose lore Black people have nurtured for years. Yet, ultimately it works to exclude us in ways the film itself warns against.
Cabrini Green was built on the same ground where the original Candyman was tortured. His ashes were scattered over these grounds. The real Cabrini Green is a prime example of how gentrification eradicates communities and cultures. Expensive condos and apartments dominate an area that once teemed with Black life. As a result, we have been priced out of the very communities we were once redlined into. Perhaps a better direct sequel would have been Candyman seeking his vengeance on white gentrifiers currently living in the lofts built on his corpse. There might have been something cathartic about seeing those who directly benefit from state-sanctioned violence dealt with by the darkly mysterious Candyman.
Ultimately, I think that Candyman (2021) will be the film of the summer. For some, it will serve as a great summer-ending film. An excellent bridge from the action flicks of summer into the horror vibes people want as we enter the fall holiday season. For others, it will spark conversations about how Black artists have moved from creating work that centers and validates our lived experience into creating work that makes our trauma palatable for the very group that inflicted it.
Love it or hate it, I think there’s one thing we can all agree on. Nobody should mention Candyman in front of any mirrors any time soon.
For more work by Aprille’, check out her review of Cocaine Cowboys here.