‘Candyman’ review: Nia DaCosta’s entertaining exploration of Black mythology ends up a little bittersweet
Trauma in any form is devastating to the human psyche. It can take years, an entire lifetime to process and cope with, or to even simply just live in a state of limbo where it exists in a space forcibly carved out within one’s self just so we’re able to function daily. And at times the need for justice and vengeance does the same damage. In the newest iteration of the Candyman lore, director and co-writer Nia DaCosta (Little Woods) does her best to give context to these two words in relation to how racism, white supremacy, and mythology all play a part in leaving scars on Black communities and the physical spaces they inhabit.
In 1977, a young Black boy named Billy is sent by his mother to wash a load of laundry in the community laundry room in the basement of the Cabrini-Green projects of Chicago, where he has a terrifying encounter when he comes face to face with Sherman, a man in a long dull yellow fur collared coat who offers him a handful of sweets from his left hand. His right is missing, replaced with a hook at the end of it. Frightened, Billy screams, causing the cops that have been stationed around the housing complex he lives in, to come rushing. With the sound of pounding footsteps rapidly approaching, the camera focuses on the look of abject terror in Sherman’s eyes, and you know how this will go. Because when cops are targeting a Black man the outcome is unfortunately fatal one too many times.
The original 1992 Candyman film directed by Bernard Rose, starring Tony Todd in the role of the feared and mysterious killer, provided the origin story of how this fabled character whose real name is Daniel Robitaille came to be. Brutally tortured, mutilated and murdered by a mob of racist white men in the 1890s, Daniel’s spirit stayed behind to haunt Smokey Hollow, the land where his body was burnt, which would go on to be changed to Cabrini-Green years later.
For Black people, Candyman is an urban legend not to be trifled with – in both fiction and the real world across the diaspora. To even utter his name, let alone say it the five times in a mirror needed to summon him from the realm he occupies in the empty spaces of the broken walls in Cabrini-Green, is heavily cautioned against. Or it was, before the folktale of him faded into obscurity following the destruction of the housing development Black Chicago natives called home, to make way for upscale highrises built to cater to young white elites.
In this film Candyman has become an obscure entity known only by a few people who once lived there before the units were abandoned and those with an interest in urban legends. Artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II of HBO’s Watchmen) is one of the many who’ve never heard of Candyman, but know about the history of Cabrini-Green. When Troy (Nathan Steward-Jarrett, HBO’s genera+ion) comes to dinner to with his new boyfriend Grady (Kyle Kaminsky), to introduce him to Anthony and his girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris, WandaVision), Troy’s sister, they give Grady a crash course in how gentrification is a tool white people use to destroy communities of color. Making way for the wealthy elite, when they realize the value of the cultures of People of Color, but not the people themselves. As Brianna put it “…white people built the ghetto and then erased it when they realized they built the ghetto.” So they push out, tear down and rebuild, creating neighbourhoods where only People of Color of a certain tax bracket can now live, unlike their predecessors. They’ve made it, but at what costs is a question that gets hinted at periodically throughout the film, but is never really addressed. And here are elements of the plot that feel unfulfilled.
After the brief history and social studies lesson, Troy decides the gathering needs to be more exciting, and against his sister’s pleadings, turns the lights off and begins telling the story of a woman who died following extremely bizzare and deadly events. This student was Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), a white grad student who went to Cabrini-Green in the mid 1980s to gather information about urban legends for her thesis. In her research she comes across the story of the Candyman, a spirit that appears and brutally slays anyones who says his name five times in a mirror. With the use of paper cut-out shadow puppetry as a visual aid, rather than using footage from the 1992 film or newly shot scene, to illustrate the gruesome events being described by Troy, DaCosta smartly and considerately reminds audiences familiar with the film, of what happened without forcing the viewer to have to actually see the murders of Candyman’s Black victims, including the attempted burning of the baby he had kidnapped. Not showing the actual act of killing is something that DaCosta keeps as a theme in the film, using sound and the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks.
Manned by Manual Cinema, the puppet show is visually and emotionally unsettling, as there’s something sinister about the way the sharp edges, stiff movements and haunting score depict the horror of what took place. What this scene also illustrates is how Helen, like most white gentrifiers, don’t care about the people of the communities they enter, but see them as curiosities to be ogled at, with little regard and respect for the people and their cultures. Helen had been repeatedly warned that the Candyman lore was real to those who lived there, but refused to listen, leading to the deaths of more Black people, including her best friend Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons).
On the face of it DaCosta and her co-writers Jordan Peele, who also executive produced the film, and Win Rosenfeld do a great job of exploring how police brutality and gentrification destroy Black communities physically, emotionally and mentally. The slaying of innocent Black men (women and children) is something that has been taking place in North America since slavery began, and through the decades after emancipation, throughout the Jim Crow eras, Civil Rights movements of the 60s and 70s, and up to present day. DaCosta makes brilliant visual references to the dialogue as it speaks to how white supremacy acts as a curse that Black people have been trying to get out from under for hundreds of years. We see it in Anthony’s paintings; one of a Black man clawing at a noose around his neck, another a delicate baby swaddled in white sheets with the blood stained hands of white policemen reaching over him, this one inspired by the story of Sherman after Anthony learns of a mysterious man named William (Colman Domingo) whom he meets when doing research on Candyman.
She pushes this metaphor of destruction even further when Anthony seems to become cursed with the spirit of Candyman after he’s stung by a bee. From a small welt, to a festering wound and into decay the curse spreads throughout his body until it covers half of it. With very impressive special effects makeup and prosthetics, Anthony is transformed into a man no longer recognizable. His skin had become filled with holes like a beehive – or taking the context of community collapse – the walls of a building not cared for, and left abandoned. Representing the spaces left in communities after members have been killed or driven out by police violence. As inferred by William later in the film, and perhaps the bees that swarm him not only act as symbols of the police when they swarm into Black neighborhoods, and over the bodies of Black people, but I’d also suggest they represents the hoards of white people who descend upon Black communities in major American cities, once they’ve been changed and retrofitted to suit their tastes, with all hints of individuality, flavor and culture stripped away.
Aesthetically Candyman the film exists in two worlds. The new skyscrapers of glass and steel, and the grungy dark, and abandoned housing units covered in graffiti, peeling paint and holes that Candyman the spirit dwells in. This brings to mind the old saying of “Out with the old, in with the new” is translated in two ways. The first being the deaths that occur at the hands of Candyman. After Anthony has essentially awakened the long forgotten spirit of Sherman, he kills anyone who says his name while looking at their reflections in mirrors.
The first victim is the owner of a museum where Brianna has curated an exhibition of work by local artists, one being Anthony who has created an interactive installation with mirrors, representing the idea that who the person sees in the reflection has played some part in the destruction of the community. That everyone who looks in the mirror and says the curse all five times, is a white person who scoffs at Anthony’s work, belittling it and his abilities, is a nice twist on the original films, where the victims were predominantly Black. That one of the victims is an art critic played by an actress who bares a striking resemblance to Virginia Madsen didn’t escape my notice. And this is another element of the film that works, because it shows had it not been for white people pushing their way in, and displacing Black people, they wouldn’t end up being victims. I guess that’s one cost of gentrification they never thought about.
The second translation of old versus new, are the characters themselves. Anthony, Brianna and Troy represent the new generation of the young, Black and gifted crowd. As an artist, art curator and realtor respectfully, they’re who those of the older generation wanted their descendants to become. They’d be seen as the successful young people who became rich enough to inhabit the spaces normally dominated by the white elite, including those same high rise condos and studio apartments that now stand where the old once stood. But in the dialogue it’s hinted that with this progress somethings were lost, like respect for their past, as exemplified with Troy whose speech seems to hint at a disdain for what Cabrini-Green once was, even as he tells his white boyfriend about the ills of gentrification. Then there’s the constant demand for Brianna and Anthony to expose their pain for all the world to see for the sake of art to impress those who only have an interest in using big words to really say they don’t understand or care about their struggles, just being entertained. In all of these things DaCosta has made the film a great examination on the ways society has changed, and the ways it hasn’t.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is great as a man who grows increasingly agitated as each murder drives him a bit more insane. Colman Domingo also shines in the way he lets just a hint of his obsession with the mythology seep through, until it comes pouring out in the third act, revealing a man who’s completely lost his connection with sanity due to his utter exhaustion of the treatment of Black people at the hands of police. Teyonah Parris too gets moments to shine and show her talent as a dramatic actress, that made me wish there were more scenes where we could’ve seen just how far she could go with this genre.
But despite all these things the film has its own weakness. Where it doesn’t quite work for me is the actual horror or lack thereof, and some aspects of the characterizations. The film is devoid of any tension needed to make the actual deaths seem as horrific as they should be.
From the very first scene when Sherman exits the wall, to the first murders and the last, there’s no real element of unease. For instance with the first murders I couldn’t take the scene seriously because there was no build up to it, and the deaths themselves came off as comical due to how the actor played his character. He didn’t seem to truly fear the looming presence there to kill him, and it felt more like a rehearsal than a final sure performance.
The score itself didn’t seem to convey a sense of dread at pivotal moments. The film was also hindered by its short runtime of one hour and thirty minutes. It would’ve served the story well had there been more time to develop the actual mythology of Candyman, once he had been fully realized when Anthony’s identity became fully claimed by Daniel’s with a great cameo appearance by Tony Todd. With his appearance near the end, the chance for the audience to really get into the lore of Candyman is abruptly halted.
Another area where the film falters is there’s no real connection to the past of Cabrini-Green through the people themselves. More time was needed to learn the history of this place and the city of Chicago from William and Ann-Marie, Vanessa Williams reprising her role as the same character from the first film. It would’ve been great to see them talk more about their experiences not only with Anthony but also Brianna and Troy. Instead there was only one scene with Ann-Marie where she spoke about her horrifying experience to Anthony who went to her looking for answers about the truth of what happened all those years ago. As the only living person who had a personal experience with Candyman, Ann-Marie’s story is pivotal to understanding why the mythos continues to have a strong hold on Black people, as evidenced by her stopping Anthony from even saying his name, even though he’s not looking in a mirror at the time. It was also necessary seeing that apart from Brianna, and a couple scenes with her and a museum director, the film itself lacks a significant female presence throughout.
It’s also hinted that Brianna may have a connection to Candyman herself, but that’s never fully explained or fleshed out, leaving what seems to be a thread left hanging in the storyline, and another wasted opportunity to give more depth to a Black female character. Yes, the Candyman lore is about tormented Black men, but Black women are also tormented by racism, and violence from men, so their perspectives are needed in characterizations in films that deal with this topic no matter the genre.
Candyman is an entertaining film that stands on its own within this particular chapter of the Candyman story. As a director, Nia DaCosta has a visual and metaphorical narrative style that works very well to get her idea across clearly to the audience. But for a film that spends quite a bit of time talking about how Black people have been affected by white supremacy, it somehow manages to ignore giving people actual time to share exactly what that looked like for them on an individual level, which hopefully gets improved upon should they do a sequel – a door the film leaves wide open for.
Universal Pictures and Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures will release Candyman only in theaters on August 27.