We’re not going to say it five times, but will we watch it five times?
2021’s Candyman was an inevitability. From Crash in the 2000s to Bright in the 2010s, there have plenty of earnest, well-meaning white people trying to sympathetically tell the story of racial inequality with big swings – and striking out every time. Likewise, the original Candyman, written and directed by Bernard Rose in 1992, follows Helen, a grad student writing her thesis on urban legends, who encounters the story of Candyman – a lynched black man who is now being invoked by the residents of the ghetto Cabrini-Green as a coping mechanism, dissociating the crime in the neighbourhood rather than snitching: “Candyman did it”.
I suppose it was a bold move, making a horror movie that openly questions the validity of white panic and the myth of the ‘scary black man’, as well as comments on the neglect and abuse faced by poor African Americans. Fast forward 30 years, though, and it’s hard not to take issue with the fact the story is told from the perspective of a white woman and her plights. It puts black people on a stage under the pretence of giving them a voice, only to snatch the mic away and speak for them. Black people’s stories need to be told by black people if they’re to be true stories.
All this to say that given Hollywood’s habit of remaking and rebooting classic horror franchises, Candyman simply had to be made. With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the redevelopment of Cabrini-Green into upscale apartment blocks, it was begging for a post-Get Out retelling. One that examines the original film critically, acknowledging its intent but switching up the perspective and tweaking things to account for new values. If you want to judge the film purely on that basis, then it’s undoubtedly a success.
The film follows a rising artist, Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), struggling to find inspiration to appease his girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris), the director of an art gallery. Having recently moved into one of Cabrini-Green’s new apartments, Anthony explores what remains of the old neighbourhood and encounters lifelong resident Burke (Colman Domingo), who tells him about Candyman. Inspired, Anthony begins creating artwork themed around summoning Candyman and, following several murders, the legend begins to spread once again.
Candyman is a true slasher movie in that it isn’t remotely scary, but rather bleakly comical, falling somewhere between the tone of Jordan Peele’s solo films and the slashers of the 80s. Even body horror tropes like fingernail pulling and throat slashing that normally twists my stomach into knots failed to have an impact. There’s little to no tension within scenes, and bar a couple of misdirects you can see the twists and turns coming a mile away. The outstanding cast completely carries the film with total commitment to their roles. But if you were coming to the film looking for some spooky entertainment, you’ll be quite disappointed.
Candyman is primarily a think piece about stories and the act of storytelling, be that through art, conversation, or news media. Director Nia DaCosta and co-writers Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld created not a film that stands on its own, but more of a meta-commentary on the original film’s presence in culture, itself a microcosm of cultural appropriation.
An interesting semi-retcon of the first film is that Helen wasn’t the only chosen victim of Candyman, and instead dozens of black men have been killed in his name over the decades. Rather than being solely the original man who was lynched, Candyman is reimagined as a hive mind of lynched black men, a better metaphorical use of the bees than I ever saw coming. Helen just happened to be the only white victim, so she made the news, and the legend (and movie) became all about a white woman who went mad.
This ends up becoming what I consider to be the best aspect of the movie: the way it explores appropriation – both the physical appropriation of space through gentrification, and the appropriation of culture through films like the original Candyman. It’s coupled with a constant use of mirrors in the film, both for plot reasons, but also highlighting the kind of double consciousness experienced by the main characters as they struggle with their actions conflicting with their ideals – the irony of complaining about gentrification despite enjoying living in a gentrified neighbourhood; the hypocrisy of artists exploiting black pain for personal profit; their role in perpetuating a cycle of violence and segregation.
DaCosta’s solid direction leads us through the nature of urban legend like Plato’s Cave, quite literally in fact – the Candyman myths are shown visually as shadow puppets of paper cutouts. We’re first told Helen’s story, then another version from the 70s, eventually arriving at the origin story over halfway through the film. Layer after layer of the Candyman story that was obscuring the truth is stripped away, observing how harsh reality is often buried under a more palatable fantasy. One character laments the existence of a legend at all, arguing that the victims of racial violence are real, yet no one remembers their names.
Despite all this metatextual cleverness, Candyman doesn’t quite live up to the original. The score fails to bring the same magic Philip Glass brought to the table, or the intertextual meaning of his involvement given his work on Koyaanisqatsi (which featured the destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe project, a public housing disaster similar to Cabrini-Green).
One of my least favourite parts of the original was the Dracula-esque twist that Helen had been chosen due to her resemblance to the woman Candyman had fallen in love with. 2021’s Candyman plays a similar card, making it Anthony’s destiny to return to Cabrini-Green and become involved with Candyman, something I feel betrays the fantastic conceit that Candyman could be any person of colour, should they find themselves the victim of racial violence. The story of Candyman is now tightly intertwined with the real stories of people like George Floyd, and the film honours this relationship in every element except for this.
To say that Candyman is a blunt film is an understatement. Normally I’m talking about the subtext of films like this, and how effectively the writers have weaved important topics into the narrative of the film. In this however, from the get-go characters are espousing ideas about gentrification and it doesn’t stop throughout the whole film. Anthony’s art piece ‘Say His Name’ and the ritual to summon Candyman evokes the protests around Breonna Taylor’s death. The story of the 1970s Candyman parallels the Central Park jogger case and countless others besides. In a way, that’s true to life – nowadays the discourse about race is out there in the open and exhaustingly neverending. But if the surface level is going to be sober discussions about race, then what remains underneath? The answer is, unfortunately, not much, and I was left feeling as hollow as the film itself by the end.
Funnily enough, the writers seemed to be aware of this. In one scene, Anthony explains the intent of his art piece to the critic examining it and then, embarrassed, says something to the effect of “I don’t know why I’m explaining it, the work speaks for itself”. The lack of subtlety in Anthony’s work is a continuous thread, with people like Brianna calling out how on the nose he is in his depiction of racial violence. I wonder who the writers see themselves more as – Brianna who doesn’t respect art without artifice, or Anthony who believes in earnestly telling plain truths and is derided for it, much as I’m deriding them for their lack of subtlety. I suspect it’s the latter.
Ultimately, Candyman has a lot of ideas but not a lot to say about them. It’s a finger pointing at something to draw your attention to it, but it doesn’t have any thoughts or interpretations of what it’s pointing out. Perhaps they simply didn’t have the time to really get into the meat of it. At only 90 minutes, Candyman introduces a whole heap of complex issues and never gets past broad concepts, never digging deep into the root of it all. I love the fact that reclaiming black icons and spaces whilst highlighting the injustice of their appropriation in the first place is front and centre in a prominent Hollywood film. But without a solid conclusion, a ribbon to tie its many disparate threads together, it all comes across like the first draft of an undergraduate’s essay, more of a rant than a thesis.
I’m glad the film exists, I’m just disappointed that’s seemingly all it intended to do – to exist.