Film review: Candyman (2021)
Review Overview Beautiful visual stylisations 9/10 Intelligent engagement with the original 9/10 Race matters Rating 9/10 Nia DaCosta's artful horror sequel reflexively rewrites both the traditions of its own franchise and the white narratives of American history.
Reading time: 6 mins
Director: Nia DaCosta Cast: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Colman Domingo, Teyonnah Parris, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Kyle Kaminsky, Vanessa Williams, Rebecca Spence Certificate: 15
It is in the nature of myths to change. When writer/director Bernard Rose adapted Clive Barker’s short story The Forbidden (1985) into the film Candyman (1992), he translocated events from his native Liverpool in Thatcher-era England to the Cabrini-Green projects in Chicago, and so introduced a long history of Black marginalisation and oppression in America to intersect with the side-lining, chauvinism and plagiary suffered by the original’s protagonist, Helen, at the hands of her academic male colleagues. Barker’s play on sexual and social tensions had acquired a new racial element and, in the character of the hook-handed Candyman, memorably played by Tony Todd, Rose had created one of genre cinema’s greatest African-American icons – a figure who embodied the hidden horrors of America’s white history and whose moral ambivalence made him as much righteous hero as murderous villain.
Two sequels – Bill Condon’s Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995) and Turi Meyer’s Candyman 3: Day of the Dead (1999) – came and went, and then this avatar of urban mythology and ongoing iniquity seemed well and truly to vanish into the new millennium, until writers Jordan Peele (also producing), Win Rosenfeld and Nia DaCosta revived and reimagined Candyman’s legend, with DaCosta at the helm. Both a sequel to Rose’s film and something of a reboot, this new Candyman opens in 1977, in the deprived, all-Black ghetto of Cabrini-Green. Here a young boy (Rodney L Jones III) in his bedroom uses shadow puppets to play out a scenario of police violence – and, shortly afterwards, in the basement laundry room of a neighbouring building, he will witness a gang of police meting out the real thing with extreme prejudice against hook-handed, candy-wielding local Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove). This is a sequence that all at once brings the past vividly alive, conjures (while altering) the familiar iconography of the Candyman, and confounds the real world with its artistic presentation. No surprises, then, that when the film skips to the present day, it will ring the changes not just on this ever-evolving location, but also on the innovations that it is itself bringing to the Candyman mythos – all filtered through the eyes of an artist. Like Daniel Robitaille, who was horrifically tortured, mutilated and killed for a forbidden interracial romance back in the 1890s before becoming the original Candyman, Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is a painter. He is also in transition – having recently moved from the south side of Chicago into the new, gentrified apartment blocks built over demolished sections of Cabrini-Green, he is also in something of a creative rut as he tries to put his past work behind him and find new approaches and themes for his art. Soon he settles on the shifting history of Cabrini-Green itself as his latest subject, incorporating the stories of Candyman that he has heard from William Burke (Colman Domingo), the young boy from the opening scene who has long since grown up but never left the older, un-regenerated part of Cabrini-Green. There, William now runs a laundromat. He had his first encounter with Sherman Fields in a laundry room, and he has his own ideas about how to clean up the neighbourhood – even if, as he says of both the place and its history, “When something leaves a stain, even when you wash it out, it’s still there. You can feel it.”
Mirrors have always been key to the Candyman films. Dare to say Candyman’s name five times while looking into one, and you will, according to the legend, conjure him to kill you. DaCosta’s version, which opens with its various production logos inverted as though seen as mirror images, is not just packed with reflective surfaces, but also full of self-referentiality. “I’m trying to align these moments in time that exist in the same place,” Anthony tells the art critic Finley Stephens (Rebecca Spence). “The idea is to almost calibrate tragedy into a focused lineage that culminates in the now.” He is showing Finley his latest work Say My Name, a mirror (with accompanying instructions for “Candyman” to be uttered in front of it five times) concealing behind it a cabinet that contains hanging portraits of local African-Americans who had, over the centuries, met unjust, violent ends. Yet with these words, Anthony might as well be articulating a manifesto for Candyman itself, which weaves together threads from past Candyman films while bringing the story right up to date, confronting viewers with a history (of the nation, but also of the series) that helps define who they are today. Anthony discusses art with the white critic and observes that she only becomes interested in his work after it has acquired a public notoriety. Anthony’s art-curating wife, Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), similarly discusses art with white New York dealer Jack Hyde (Torrey Hanson) and Black gallery owner Danielle Harrington (Christiana Clark) – only to realise quickly that they are less interested in her work than in cashing in on her family history (Brianna’s artist father committed suicide when she was little) and her husband’s new-found controversy. All this exposes and dramatises a cultural milieu where African-American artists are cynically exploited by others, and manipulated (like the shadow puppets that stage the film’s flashbacks) to tell stories that no longer feel like their own. Such talk of art is obviously reflexive, mirroring the anxieties of DaCosta and other Black filmmakers involved in Candyman, who would prefer that their message not be adulterated, distorted, appropriated or otherwise overtaken by outside influences (including, no doubt, white critics such as myself). This Candyman is particularly preoccupied with a kind of trauma that afflicts an entire community, affecting all of its individual members. Brianna is haunted by the legacy of her father’s madness and despair, while Anthony’s mental scars, connected to a local history in which he has a greater share than he realises, soon manifest themselves physically, as a bee sting on his hand becomes infected and eventually spreads to turn his entire body into an open wound. A direct line can be traced from the mob lynching of Daniel Robitaille to the police beating of Sherman Fields to the delayed destiny awaiting Anthony – all racially motivated, utterly unjust acts of violence. The film’s focus, from the very opening to the bitter end, on police brutality updates Rose’s 90s film to our own era of Black Lives Matter and #ACAB. For while here it is the white authorities who control the narrative, scapegoat the innocent and conspire to conceal the truth, DaCosta’s Candyman provides – and is itself – an alternative to the official police line, even as the viewer is urged to “tell everyone” this counter-narrative and so to keep alive its artful rewriting of a previously white history. At one point near the end, William says: “You can really make the story your own, but some of the specifics should be somewhat consistent.” Candyman is, ultimately, a different story from Rose’s, a story about Black experience by Black filmmakers. It is, nonetheless, ever respectful towards the tradition that it has inherited from its predecessors, and retains the essential elements – the location, the hook-handed victim/villain, the mirror conjuring, several (back)storylines and characters – of a franchise that has always been about the transformative power of myth.