By Kelli Weston
Dir. Nia DaCosta, U.S., Universal/MGM
Ghosts betray a history of violence, usually more pervasive than personal. Malefic or otherwise, they compel the living to investigate or else confront the past. Thus was the project of Candyman (1992), Bernard Rose’s adaptation of the short story “The Forbidden” by Clive Barker. It is a ghost story about ghost stories, or more precisely—because this particular tale unites a mostly Black populace—folklore, all the more precious because at one point it was all these communities could preserve of their heritage.
In that original film, when white graduate student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) proposes to translate for the academy what amounts to Black oral history—specifically urban legends—she inevitably runs afoul of horror, embodied by the murderous, hook-handed specter (Tony Todd), summoned when his name is recited five times in a mirror. She discovers he was born Daniel Robitaille—a respected painter and the son of a slave—who was viciously lynched after he fathered a child by his white lover, and now clings spectrally to Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green housing project.
Nia DaCosta’s Candyman picks up in the present day with Anthony McCoy (a haunted turn from Watchmen actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Like Robitaille, McCoy is an artist, drawn to the ramshackle remnants of the largely redeveloped Cabrini-Green as a bourgeois voyeur, for he resides in one of the chic high-rises that the projects have been converted into. There he meets longtime resident William Burke (Colman Domingo), who regales him with his own version of a “Candyman” myth: Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove), a mute, well-meaning tenant who would hand out candy to the neighborhood children until William, as a boy, sees him gunned down by police.
It turns out that all the principal characters have had traumatic childhood brushes with death. Anthony’s art curator girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Parris), witnessed her father’s suicide when she was a girl and Anthony, too, will discover that he bears a chilling, long-concealed past. Artmaking, but importantly storytelling, becomes an effort to “calibrate tragedy into a focused lineage,” as Anthony later claims. Candyman has never been especially subtle material. When Brianna calls one of Anthony’s paintings “too literal,” the same criticism could be leveled against the film, which takes every opportunity to announce its themes. “Candyman is how we deal with the fact that these things happen!” William exclaims in one scene. “That they’re still happening!”
It is true that Candyman, at once grotesque and irresistibly seductive invokes a specific kind of racialized violence, one that historically befell Black men for the mere suspicion of desiring white women. He is a monster of the white imagination; so, of course, the source of his horror is the mirror, the site where authorship over his own image—for a master portraitist, at that—has been unjustly snatched from him. As he delves deeper into the past, Anthony powerlessly undergoes a similar transformation, increasingly menaced by his own reflection as his body decays before his eyes.
Despite its well-earned cult status, with its enduringly rich semiotics, Rose’s film did not fully escape certain racist tropes. Chief among them, although Candyman is an apparently indiscriminate killer, he mainly terrorizes Black women. And then there are the troublesome parallels the film seems to draw between Helen’s struggle for academic acceptance and the respect of her male peers to the condition of Black denizens in the inner city. DaCosta and her co-screenwriters Jordan Peele (also a producer) and Win Rosenfeld take great pains to correct these blunders: most of the bodies that pile up here are white. Moreover, the violence is either obscured or remote in distinctly arranged shots from cinematographer John Guleserian that build on the film’s festering eeriness. These deaths are always unreachable, carried out by hidden, unseen forces. There is a noticeable emphasis, too, on blood, fitting for a franchise so preoccupied with troubled lineage (earlier sequels would revolve, bafflingly, around Robitaille’s white female descendants). And Brianna, resonantly rendered by Parris, has a dimension sorely absent from Kasi Lemmons as the quintessential Black Best Friend and Vanessa Williams’s single mother in Rose’s film. The latter reappears here, in an all-too-brief scene that fails to elaborate on themes of displacement and motherhood (which would have more deeply linked it to its forebear).
DaCosta’s Candyman seems obsessively aware of the moment in which it arrives. This is not in and of itself detrimental: the film does not, for example, gracelessly revel in the viscera of racial violence like Antebellum (2020) and the television series Them (2021) and Lovecraft Country (2020). Although one can’t say Candyman exactly shies away from body horror, DaCosta judiciously wields this imagery to meaningfully express the psychological and physical legacies that Black communities inherit, bonded by these tales of terror, which are, in fact, history. But these efforts to course correct and the rush to declare meaning dampen its effectiveness. The screenplay doesn’t trust its viewers to make these connections that the genre’s scaffolding innately enlivens. The film culminates in a political message that purposefully conjures contemporary activism, but Brianna, really the lone Black woman—and, so it happens, the film’s covert protagonist—seems doomed to grieve and play the role of “witness” to the untimely deaths of the men around her, in an equation that, perhaps helplessly, echoes a presumption that Black women are not themselves vulnerable to that same violence.
Apart from the occasional heavy hand, DaCosta’s Candyman distinguishes itself with Guleserian’s gray, sleek compositions, which richly allude to the original (a shot of one “Candyman” stepping through a hole in the wall recalls the graffitied mouth of Candyman in the 1992 film) and splendid performances from the cast. Domingo is the standout in a characteristically scene-stealing performance. Given the film’s emphasis on oral tradition, he plays a key role here as the resident griot, or at least he functions like that caste of West African storytellers, musicians, and poets, tasked with preserving and relaying their respective society’s histories. Domingo possesses a unique cadence, at once raspy and melodic, innately weighty. His character’s backstory is perhaps overwritten, but as a man peculiarly burdened by tragedy, he, more than any other, understands the otherworldly force of mythmaking. After all, it is William who tells Anthony the many iterations of Candyman lore and thus shepherds Anthony’s dreadful return to his origins. During the climactic sequence, in a church, William cements his position as the ultimate storyteller in a clever nod to both the griot’s diasporic transformation into pastor and the religious grasp these narratives hold. Certainly the majority of Black people survive this film because they are appropriately reverent, some would say superstitious. In this way, the film seals its own legacy: Candyman, indeed a testament to a lineage of tragedy, is reborn as the hallowed emblem of Black protest he was always meant to be.