Candyman” Makes Muddled Points About Black Trauma


Universal Pictures

Yahya Abdul Mateen II in Candyman.

Early on in Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the film’s star, is having a conversation with his girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Parris), her brother, Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), and her brother’s new boyfriend, Grady (Kyle Kaminsky), about gentrification. Specifically, they’re describing the area of Chicago where the Cabrini-Green high-rise housing projects stood before most of the buildings were destroyed in the ’90s. “White people built the ghetto and then erased it when they realized they built the ghetto,” Brianna says. “Everywhere is haunted,” Anthony offers. Such dialogue is representative of the movie as a whole — trite observations and wooden, moralistic chatter. When a movie has a plot that is predicated on a killer spreading fear by word of mouth, you want to be moved by the beats of good writing: airy language that leaves enough room for the sound design to underscore its intimations and phrasing like an open window you didn’t remember leaving up, its curtains hanging in the breeze, the tailwind trailing right to your subconscious. Instead of dialogue that inspires fright, viewers of this new Candyman get overblown discourse.

Such dialogue is representative of the movie as a whole — trite observations and wooden, moralistic chatter.

This movie had lots of potential. At the heart of DaCosta’s Candyman reboot is the act of invocation, as in Bernard Rose’s original 1992 film of the same name. The way to summon Candyman, the urban legend haunting Cabrini-Green, is to say his name five times while looking into a mirror. Once called, he slashes people with his hook. Screenwriters DaCosta, Win Rosenfeld, and Jordan Peele (who also produces) revisit the premise (and even a few characters) from the original, but their engagement feels less revelatory despite the movie’s rising star director (DaCosta is currently shooting a Marvel movie; Peele’s endorsement; a good cast with Mateen, Parris, and Colman Domingo; and a critique of police brutality that includes repetition of “say his name,” a phrase that is a reference to both Candyman’s brutality and a saying that honors victims of police killings. And yet, the film plays a bit like the scenes of shadow puppetry that is one of its main motifs: Thematically, it’s one-dimensional, its power visually presented but not truly sensed.

The script relies heavily on information introduced in Rose’s film, which was itself inspired by Clive Barker’s 1985 short story “The Forbidden.” Barker’s story is set in a Liverpool public housing estate and concerns Helen, a grad student, who goes there to study its graffiti, a subject that merges her interests in “sociology and esthetics.” Rose’s film transposes the theme of class into that of institutional racism and folklore and moves the action from England to Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects, the site that Americans at the time associated with violent crime and a series of grisly, headline-grabbing murders there. (In a 1986 Chicago Tribune article, the writers focused on “areas haunted by gang violence.”)


Tristar Pictures / ©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

CANDYMAN, Virginia Madsen, Kasi Lemmons, 1992, (c) TriStar/courtesy Everett Collection

In the original Candyman, Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is a white cultural anthropologist and doctoral student cowriting a thesis on urban legends with Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons), a Black colleague. Through her research, she hears about Candyman, the tortured spirit of Daniel Robitaille (Tony Todd), a Black man whose father, once enslaved, became wealthy after the Civil War. Raised with money and more privilege than most Black people of his day, Robitaille became a celebrated artist and fell in love with a white woman whose portrait he was hired to paint. After the woman became pregnant, her father incited a “pack of hooligans” to attack him. What happened next was grotesque but not unlike similar tortures performed by white lynch mobs: They chased him to Cabrini-Green, cut off his hand and replaced it with a hook, stripped him naked, rubbed honey all over his body, unleashed a hive of bees that stung him to death, and burned his body on a pyre. Afterwards, they scattered his ashes on the ground that became Cabrini-Green.

Unsettled by the trauma of his unseemly demise, Robitaille returns as Candyman and haunts those who dare to call him from the spirit realm. Helen is fascinated by the story and becomes obsessed with proving its truth. She goes to the projects to take photos, interview residents about the legend, and creeps around the haunted apartment where a young woman was stabbed. Along the way, she breaks boundaries, violating the trust of her sources and walking into people’s homes uninvited. Soon, she encounters Candyman and gets totally enmeshed in the narrative, becoming an unwilling participant in the grisly campfire tale. “I am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom. Without these things, I am nothing,” Candyman tells her before enlisting her to do some of his bidding. Helen is eventually framed for the kidnapping of Cabrini-Green resident Anne-Marie’s (Vanessa Estelle Williams) baby and her life spirals out of control, even if she does become something of a hero by the end of the movie.

The original film interrogates academic naïveté and fetishism and invasive, if well-meaning, white “saviors”; presents a provocative (if muddled) engagement with anti-miscegenation laws and lynching; and shows Black people who lived in the fictional version of Cabrini-Green to be intelligent, compassionate, and resourceful, even though they were subdued and shellshocked by the violence wrought by Candyman and the neglect of their community by the city and its services. (The 911 hotline, which is unresponsive to their emergencies, gets denounced a few times too.)

If the Candyman myth and other legends are “the unselfconscious reflection of the fears of urban society,” as Helen’s husband, Trevor (Xander Berkeley), tells his class, then Rose’s film convincingly depicts those fears, using the mirror motif in daring ways. After all, Candyman speaks to Black fears, but a weapon-wielding Black man out for vengeance has also been an avatar of white American anxieties. Rose’s version is also illustrative of how trauma and urban renewal programs lead to sociological and interpersonal isolation. The ghetto may or may not be an “internal colony” (as many scholars, including Kamala Harris’s father, have debated), but in this film, its residents are islands of one. Long before the action in the film has taken place, the mise-en-scène suggests that a depressing individualism has long affected Cabrini-Green residents, one that is as demoralizing as the killer. Watching neighbors navigate life alone in concrete monoliths is incredibly chilling; the only time people convene is to burn old furniture at a bonfire. The first Candyman is truly moving in the ways it depicts Cabrini residents abandoning one another. (The most heartbreaking thing about the film is that a kid named Jake, played by DeJuan Guy, roams Cabrini-Green by himself, spooked by Candyman, the cops, and gangs.)

In DaCosta’s version, Helen’s tragic, if deserving, end has itself become a folktale, but the details have been flattened; the people who didn’t witness what happened don’t really have insight into the truth. Anthony McCoy, who’s in his late 20s, is one of those people. He’s an up-and-coming painter who is pressured by his art dealer to sensationalize his Blackness while also creating work that looks forward. “I want the great Black hope of the Chicago art scene of tomorrow,” the dealer tells Anthony. Spurred by his gallerist, Anthony researches the Candyman myth he’s heard and incorporates some of the mythos into his work.

The film is sharpest when it’s connecting the bad faith interests of establishment figures — some Black, some white — to actual physical violence inflicted on Black people.

Brianna curates an exhibition and includes Anthony’s Candyman-inspired project alongside art by Torkwase Dyson and Theaster Gates, real-life Chicago artists whose work is often site-specific, with Dyson incorporating architecture and Gates incorporating social practice. Anthony’s contribution is an interactive multimedia installation that mixes painting and sculpture and includes a hole in the wall and a mirror, emblems of the killer’s iconography. “I’m trying to align these moments in time that exist in the same place. The idea is to almost calibrate tragedy into a focused lineage that culminates in the now,” he tells a critic, while she half-heartedly assesses his installation. “The mirror invites you to attempt the summoning yourself.”

He’s in a horror movie, of course, so tragedy cannot be so easily calibrated, and it cannot be tidily shaped into a “focused lineage.” Via their engagement with Anthony’s piece, people start calling Candyman, and a killing spree ensues. Although the mirror-summoning ties them all together, the tragedies are all inexplicably random.

While the physical violence intensifies, the film seems to be just as interested in the art world aggression happening alongside it. Anthony’s hacky gallerist pressures him to tokenize himself, and industry gatekeepers from New York City and Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art patronize Brianna and exploit her connection to Anthony, who becomes famous after the killings. As if to drive home the point about the fetishization of Black mortality, the critic who’d panned Anthony’s Candyman piece reengages with his ideas after the bodies start piling up. The film is sharpest here, when it’s connecting the bad faith interests of establishment figures — some Black, some white — to actual physical violence inflicted on Black people. More pointedly, it’s good at critiquing the ways in which the deaths, and not the lives of Black people — the spectacle, not the specificity of people’s individual experiences — prove more interesting to kingmakers. In that way, like its predecessor, DaCosta’s Candyman offers a fascinating way to think about isolation and individualism — in this case, the myth of the successful, isolated Black artist alone in the “white cube” against a backdrop of similarly hued curators.

The art world storyline does begin to wear after a while, in part because there isn’t much to contrast it with. The original film juxtaposes Helen’s foibles researching her thesis and making fun of academia with her interviews of Cabrini-Green residents. For every loaded conversation between Helen and Bernadette, shot of Helen’s husband rhapsodizing on urban legends to a lecture hall, or insular dinner where white anthropologists scare each other over candlelight and cigarette smoke, there is a scene with Anne-Marie or Jake. This film, like the original, is partly about differences in Black and white American sociality and contrasts the ways people approach the past, how they spend time, and even how they have fun, though the stakes feel lower here. Changing Candyman’s victims means introducing a new social world; in the adjustment from 1990s Cabrini-Green and academia — two vast networks — to the dinner parties and exhibition conversations of a handful of Black artists, curators, and gallery patrons, the message circulates among a smaller group of people.

DaCosta’s film is a critique of a certain exclusionist segment of the art world without other, less-caricatured characters for people to emotionally invest in. Careerist artists, and really any single-minded kind of people, are insufferable to watch onscreen if their passions aren’t tethered to some other aesthetic or emotional interests. That is, they have to feel like real people, not stock characters. Although Anthony has a significant backstory that’s revealed in the film, the audience is given little in the way of character motivation beyond his ambition. Mateen plays him as pure, bristling energy — whisking his materials, painting with abandon, brooding, and weaponizing his fury with little regard for much else. If it feels like he’s an emotional black hole, it’s because he’s not written very well.

While Mateen’s performance is a believable satire of a certain art-biz archetype, the whole film feels constructed of one-dimensional types, extending from the characters to the cityscape. As critic Angelica Jade Bastién pointed out in a critical Vulture review, “The city is rendered here as nowhere, New York lite — all primarily anonymous skyscrapers and interiors. Like so much in the film, geography is hampered by poor framing, pacing, tension, narrative evolution, and color-palette choices.” The filmmakers’ paint-by-numbers approach to the script and its Chicago setting give this Candyman an allegorical feel without the charm and aesthetic whimsy associated with many parables.

Other themes this new Candyman half-heartedly contends with are PTSD and inheritance. Upon encountering a murder scene, one character flashes back to their father dying by suicide — before he jumps, he asks, “You didn’t know your daddy could fly?” a seeming nod to Black American folklore’s “flying African” myth, though one that the screenwriters don’t really follow up with. This encounter compounds the impact of the character’s discovery of the murder, which launches them right back to that instance of childhood violence. As a kid, another character witnesses the police kill a Black man inside a Cabrini-Green laundry room and then experiences another shocking murder that’s closer to home. When that character grows up, he buys a laundromat. Yet another character is drawn back to a formative encounter with horrific violence and feels fated to repeat the past.

But what argument is the film making about agency? If most of the movie’s primary characters are destined to be overtaken by their trauma, what hope did they ever have, and what’s the point of us watching all of this play out? People often repeat the sins of the past; it’s a tale as old as time. But Candyman’s characters are more like algorithms than humans, as they don’t meaningfully engage with what’s causing them to act out, or even try to. An argument can be made about the importance of teaching the past so that you don’t relive it, but these figures seem not only controlled by the past but by the screenwriting; they aren’t really characters as much as they are mouthpieces for ideas. Candyman claimed he was the “whisper in the classroom,” but the characters in this movie don’t know how to whisper; all they do is bark exposition and “International Art English.” There is little room for nuance and subtlety.

 If most of the movie’s primary characters are destined to be overtaken by their trauma, what hope did they ever have, and what’s the point of us watching all of this play out? 

In a madcap scene near the film’s end, one character asks, after delivering a grim monologue about history and police brutality, “Don’t you want a sweet!?” in a campy cadence that anything less than all-caps, italicized text will fail to truly approximate. And that ham-fisted sequence demonstrates another marked difference between versions of this tale: The heroine of Clive Barker’s short story is interested in “sociology and esthetics,” and the story is a scintillating engagement with both, but this Candyman reboot is all sociology, even as it plays lip service to the aesthetics of art and the ideological debates that are associated with them.

What’s most troubling is that Anthony is among those who aren’t truly given a chance to convincingly opt-in to the person he becomes. In the first film, Helen chooses to engage with the Candyman myth; she drives herself to the point of madness. Anthony’s not given many decisions to make, a narrative choice that feels incredibly bleak — not having a real chance to decide what happens in his life is more of a death sentence than whatever Candyman is up to. Candyman makes an interesting point about curiosity around racial lines, with an overwhelming majority of the film’s Black characters unable to fathom summoning the bogeyman, and yet still they find themselves in the pathway of his destruction. The white characters do summon him. But why does it seem like they’re more active, narratively? The white characters appear to be having fun, even when (especially when) they’re standing in front of a mirror, positioning themselves for their doom. But almost all of the Black characters seem robbed of joie de vivre, even before Candyman gets to them. They are always spooked. And no one seems to be reckoning with how messed up it is that Candyman has chosen to stalk a Black community when his beef seems to be elsewhere. Even if that idiosyncrasy is the villain’s illogical way of enacting vengeance, it still feels odd that no one comments on it. In real life, someone Black might have pointed out what a bastard Candyman is for his misplaced rage; someone else might’ve made fun of his penchant for interracial relationships, before and after his death. There’s so little humor here it doesn’t feel like an authentic treatment of how many Black people deal with the existential cruelty of their being in America.

Adding to that, there’s not a lot to enjoy in the movie visually. Sure, there’s lots of information in every shot — living rooms full of colorful canvas and book spines, intricate wallpaper, and laundromat signage — but few truly vivid or eye-popping tableaus. It feels like a choice that compounds the rote dreariness of the world viewers occupy for more than 90 minutes. Aside from the occasional shot of glittering glass-bordered lofts that look like dioramas, or a wide shot of a strip mall that shows the dynamic between a mom-and-pop shop and gentrifying businesses, the opening sequence is the finest visual presentation in the entire film: The camera creeps along a cluster of skyscrapers at night, with a continuous pan from below ominously scanning the hulking steel. The low-angle shot suggests something skulking the skyline and portends citywide mayhem and institutional rigor mortis, buildings and infrastructure too inflexible to offer relief.

The upside-down skyline full of fog recalls the opening line of “The Forbidden,” the source text of the Candyman franchise: “Like a flawless tragedy, the elegance of which structure is lost upon those suffering in it, the perfect geometry of the Spector Street Estate was visible only from the air.” That sequence is a brilliant translation of that sentence’s harrowing sensibility. Unfortunately, Barker’s next line, a description of the public housing estate where the story’s set, might also describe the core problem of DaCosta’s film: “Walking in its drear canyons, passing through its grimy corridors from one gray concrete rectangle to the next, there was little to seduce the eye or stimulate the imagination.”●


Niela Orr is an editor of The Believer, a fellow at the Black Mountain Institute, and a contributing editor of The Organist podcast. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, BuzzFeed, the London Review of Books, The Baffler, and McSweeney’s Quarterly, among other publications.

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